Gov. George Pataki granted the pardon after a campaign that included Bruce’s daughter and former wife, and entertainers such as Robin Williams, the Smothers Brothers, and Penn and Teller.
Bruce’s trailblazing work opened the mainstream door for such comics as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay. He was arrested during a November 1964 performance at Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. He used more than 100 “obscene” words, according to undercover New York City police detectives who attended the show, and was charged with giving an obscene performance.
Bruce was convicted after a six-month trial and then mishandled his appeal, refusing to follow the court’s rules. He served four months in prison.
Despite Bruce’s frenetic stage presence, carrying the mantle of free speech in the cultural wars of the 1960s wore him down. He died of a drug overdose in 1966 with his conviction still on the books.
“He didn’t choose to be a poster child for free speech,” said Tommy Smothers, who lost his network TV show years later over pointed comedy about the Vietnam War and the Roman Catholic Church. “I think he was very uncomfortable with that.”