Jennifer Lee Pryor on Richard Pryor’s MS, Being a Caretaker, and the Rock Against MS Benefit
Comedian Richard Pryor was never shy about anything, including his battle with Multiple Sclerosis. Through his journey, which began in 1986, his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor was there every step of the way. While Richard continued his stand-up career well into the late ’90s, Jennifer took on the role of caregiver. As his caretaker, she helped him through the hardest parts of having MS. With her never-ending love and support, Richard lived much longer than doctors anticipated.
Jennifer will be accepting the first Pryor’s Platinum People Award in Richard’s honor at the Rock Against MS event on March 25 in Los Angeles. The Rock Against MS Foundation will provide services from a grant system, which will provide daily care, quality of life needs and emergency funding, while assisting people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) to live independent and full lives. A brick and mortar facility — The Rock House — is in the planning stages. The Rock House would provide, free of charge, multiple programs and opportunities designed to heal the mind, body and spirit of all those who have been affected by MS.
We spoke to Jennifer about her journey as Richard’s caregiver, the Rock Against MS benefit, and accepting the first Pryor’s Platinum People Award.
Richard was never shy about his MS, could you tell us about his journey?
Richard was diagnosed in 1986 and we and divorced by then. We were still seeing each other though, I was living in New York and he was working on a film there, when he told me.. I didn’t tell me about his diagnosis until 1989. When I saw him, I said “You’re walking like an old man,” you could tell something was wrong. He had lost a lot of weight and just didn’t look as healthy as he had. That’s when he told me he had been diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic back in 1986. He said it started when he was working on a film and he kept tripping. He couldn’t figure out why he kept tripping. Like I said, we had always stayed in contact and so I moved back to LA to care for him in 1994. We ultimately remarried, but during those years I watched him decline. He was always a soldier in this war and always very brave. The disease was horrible, but he was terrific. I was on medication that helped for a little while, but ultimately his kidneys failed and he passed on December 10, 2005.
He certainly didn’t let MS stop him from doing what he loved.
No, he was still doing stand up and people would say it was so tragic to see him on stage. I was always offended by that, as was Richard. I found it to be heroic. He was still him. It doesn’t stop a person from being who they are. I understood, yes, it was sad but also incredibly heroic. That’s how I saw it, as did he. He was no longer the panther stalking the stage with his wonderful, passionate fury, he sat on a stool with his cane, But he was still magnificent because of that courage.
It surely was something that kept his spirits up.
It did, it help him. And many people thought it was courageous and terrific. I was disappointed in a lot of celebrities. They would say to me, “How could you let him do that?” As if I was the one dragging him to these gigs. Of course, I was the caregiver and I took the shots. Fuck it, it’s what he wanted to do. Who was I to stop him? I was there to help him facilitate his wishes.
How did taking on the caregiver role affect you?
He was on a feeding tube the last six years of his life, and statistically the person only lives about a year once getting the feeding tube. I say that because, the first way it affected me was it made me proud. It showed how well he was being cared for, and the dignity he had still, and the love that he had. It gave me a certain level of pride I never had felt in my life before. The negative way it affected me, of course, I was warn out and sometimes neglected myself. As a caregiver, you start to become invisible. You are in service to the person needing care, whatever that entails. Taking them to doctor appointments four, five days a week. They are always the priority, your needs are pushed down the line. That’s what caregiving is. I had to find a way to balance that, find a way to release the stress I was carrying. So, I started going to therapy. I really believe in talk therapy and it helps balance the issues I was facing. Not just with Richard but with a lot of crazy family stuff too. Dealing with all of that at the same time was hard. We had to get lawyers to lower child support because Richard wasn’t working anymore and bringing in the kind of money he had been. So mothers were going crazy and coming after me. Telling me Richard needed to be put on the stand in court, so we had to get lawyers to stop that from happening. He was too ill. There were many layers of this caregiving thing. Richard’s life was big so there was a lot of things that had to be handled. He had a lot of kids from a lot of different women. None from me, we just had dogs!
The Rock Against MS benefit is quickly approaching, are you excited to be a part of it?
I’m very excited. I think Nancy Sayele is doing an amazing job. When she reached out to me, I was really happy to hear that she wanted to name an award after Richard. I was also happy to hear she was putting something in place to help patients. She comes in with a unique perspective, having MS herself. I think the purpose of this is terrific. Richard and I didn’t work with other organizations, we looked at where the money was going in other organizations and just didn’t feel comfortable being a part of them. I’m really pleased to see all the funds, in this instance, will provide services in a physical facility. Who know what’s going to happen with healthcare, but this will be able to help. Not only to help medically, but being a support system.
How do you feel about accepting the first P3 (Pryor’s Platinum People Award)?
Oh my, I’m just so excited. I think Richard would be thrilled too, I know he would be. He did not run from the disease, he embraced it. I feel like embraced is the wrong word, but he did. You can choose to deny, and think you don’t have it. Or you can embrace it, and he did. He used it in his comedy, so he would be thrilled to see this happening.
Will you be continuing support of Rock Against MS?
I will help in every way I can. Whatever I can do, I will be there.
The Rock Against MS show will be held Saturday March 25, at The Los Angeles Theatre. For ticket info go to ticketfly.com