In 1980, news reports around the United States said Richard Pryor was close to death after suffering from severe burns to more than 50 percent of his body, and it was later reported that it was because he was freebasing cocaine.
In his 1982 concert "Live on the Sunset Strip," Pryor joked about the incident: "Fire is inspirational. They should use it in the Olympics, because I ran the 100 (meter) in 4.3 (seconds)."
Material like that - biting, human, raw, uninhibited - was Pryor's calling card, jokes about the human condition that inspired a generation of stand-up comedians.
He may have survived that accidental immolation in 1980, but Pryor didn't survive a heart attack yesterday, dying at the age of 65.
Pryor died after leaving his San Fernando Valley home to go to a hospital, according to business manager Karen Finch. In addition to drug and alcohol addiction, for years he battled multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system.
Music producer Quincy Jones described Pryor as a true pioneer of his art.
"He was the Charlie Parker of comedy, a master of telling the truth that influenced every comedian that came after him," Jones said in a statement. "The legacy that he leaves will forever be with us."
His audacious style influenced generations of stand-up artists, from Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock to Robin Williams and David Letterman, among others.
"There are many different kinds of comedians ... the observational humorist, the impressionist, the character creator, the physical comedian, the self-deprecator, and the dirty-joke teller. What made Richard Pryor so brilliant is he was able to incorporate all these styles at once," comedian Damon Wayans wrote on Pryor's Web site.
Throughout his career, Pryor focused on racial inequality, once joking as the host of the Academy Awards in 1977 that Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were the only black members of the Academy.
Pryor once marveled "that I live in racist America and I'm uneducated, yet a lot of people love me and like what I do, and I can make a living from it. You can't do much better than that."
His films included "Stir Crazy," "Silver Streak," "Which Way Is Up?" and "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip."
Despite his health troubles, he was happy and in good humor in his final days, said his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor.
"He will be missed, but will forever live in thousands and thousands of hearts and continue to impact and inspire people with his truth and his pain, which he turned into comedy brilliantly," she said.
Pryor was born in Peoria, Illinois in December 1940 and had a tumultuous childhood - his grandparents ran a brothel, according to one official biography. He dropped out school, served in the army from 1958 and 1960, then began touring the United States and Canada doing stand-up comedy in clubs.
But after years of clean-cut shows in the vein of Bill Cosby, Pryor famously walked offstage in the middle of a performance in Las Vegas, after staring into the audience and asking, "What the fuck am I doing here?"
Two years later he was back with an explosive new act, full of colorful language, vulgarities, and racial epithets, and tough street characters whose monologues reflected despair and disillusionment with life in America.
"I wish that every new and young comedian would understand what Richard was about and not confuse his genius with his language usage," comedian Bill Cosby said through a spokesman yesterday.