Mystery continues to shroud Richard Pryor's act of dousing his body in rum and setting himself on fire in 1980

Pryor's wife Jennifer Lee in the documentary 'I'm Richard Pryor' classifies the incident as a suicide attempt


                            Mystery continues to shroud Richard Pryor's act of dousing his body in rum and setting himself on fire in 1980

The life of Richard Pryor, one of the most influential stand-up comedians of all time, has been well-documented and analysed. However, there is one defining moment in the comedian's life which still leaves his fans baffled even after decades — when the superstar set himself on fire. 

Pryor, on June 9, 1980, set himself on fire, running across the streets of Los Angeles while free-basing cocaine and drinking 151-proof rum. He was subdued by the police and rushed to the hospital. Pryor's daughter, Rain, at the time told officials that her father in a drug-induced psychosis had poured rum over his body and set himself on fire.

The comic genius, 39 at the time, suffered burns over 50 per cent of his body and was given a 1-in-3 chance to live, however, he survived and continued to do stand-up. He often joked about this experience, famously once lighting a match stick in front of his audience and waving it as he said: "What's this? It's Richard Pryor running down the street."

Comedian Richard Pryor was listed as No. 1 in Comedy Central' list of all time greatest stand-up comedians. (I am Richard Pryor)
Comedian Richard Pryor was listed as No. 1 in Comedy Central' list of all time greatest stand-up comedians. (I am Richard Pryor)

Although Pryor made light of the traumatic experience in front of his audience, his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor, decades later, has a different story to tell. Jennifer Lee, while talking about the incident in a new documentary 'I Am Richard Pryor,' said that she believed Pryor had thought about the incident before it unfolded. She said that moments before Pryor lit himself on fire, she knew something was amiss with him.

Jennifer Lee, while talking to PEOPLE, said that she believes the infamous incident was a suicide attempt. "He warned me," she said. "He said to me, ‘I’ve decided what to do. I have to do this otherwise I don’t know how I’m going to get out. There’s no way out of this so you need to leave so you don’t get hurt too.’ I knew he was planning something, I didn’t know what."

From left to right, actor Richard Pryor, director Mel Stuart and producer Forest Hamilton on the Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival in France, where they are promoting their film 'Wattstax', 15th May 1973. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
From left to right, actor Richard Pryor, director Mel Stuart and producer Forest Hamilton on the Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival in France, where they are promoting their film 'Wattstax', 15th May 1973. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I called the house. Somebody answered and then the next thing I know they drop the phone and I heard someone screaming, and Richard at that time running through the house on fire," she added.

The incident occurred soon after Pryor's grandmother's death. Pryor, who was raised by his grandmother Marie Carter, was very close to her and considered her his anchor. Without her he was lost. He delved deeper into drugs, and talked about his relationship with cocaine in his stand-up acts. Soon after, headlines flashed that he had set himself on fire.

Pryor's wife also recalled a similar incident, which should have raised alarm. She said that once when she came home, she found that the comedian had set the bed on fire while freebasing cocaine.

“I came home one afternoon and I could smell the fire,” she said. “I went into the bedroom and the bed was on fire. I moved out not long after that. I got an apartment in Beverly Hills and would see him intermittently.”

3-3-00, Santa Barbara, Ca. Richard Pryor Accepts The Lifetime Achievement Award As Wife Jennifer And Daughter Rain Stand With Him During The Santa Barbara International Film Festival At The Granada Theatre. (Photo By Dave Luchansky/Getty Images)
3-3-00, Santa Barbara, Ca. Richard Pryor Accepts The Lifetime Achievement Award As Wife Jennifer And Daughter Rain Stand With Him During The Santa Barbara International Film Festival At The Granada Theatre. (Photo By Dave Luchansky/Getty Images)

Talking about Pryor's addiction to cocaine, she said: “The addiction was very quick. I thought that this was controllable. I’d seen him when he had to do a concert film or do a job, he was very disciplined. But that all went out the window when that pipe was introduced.” 

Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during the later stages of his life which left him bound to a wheelchair; he eventually died of a heart attack in 2005.