Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor (December 1, 1940 - December 10, 2005) was an American comedian, actor, film director, social critic, satirist, writer, and MC.
Pryor was known for uncompromising examinations of racism and topical contemporary issues, which employed colorful vulgarities and profanity, as well as racial epithets. He reached a broad audience with his trenchant observations and storytelling style. He is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time: Jerry Seinfeld called Pryor "The Picasso of our profession", and Bob Newhart has called Pryor "the seminal comedian of the last 50 years". This legacy can be attributed, in part, to the unusual degree of intimacy Pryor brought to bear on his comedy. As Bill Cosby reportedly once said, "Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it."
Pryor's body of work includes the concert movies and recordings: Richard Pryor: Live & Smokin' (1971), That Nigger's Crazy (1974), ...Is It Something I Said? (1975), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), and Richard Pryor: Here and Now (1983). He also starred in numerous films as an actor, such as Superman III (1983), but was usually in comedies such as Silver Streak (1976), and occasionally in dramatic roles, such as Paul Schrader's film Blue Collar (1978). He collaborated on many projects with actor Gene Wilder. Another frequent collaborator was actor/comedian/writer Paul Mooney.
Pryor won an Emmy Award (1973) and five Grammy Awards (1974, 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1982). In 1974, he also won two American Academy of Humor awards and the Writers Guild of America Award. The first ever Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was presented to him in 1998. Pryor is listed at Number 1 on Comedy Central's list of all-time greatest stand-up comedians.
Born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor grew up in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother, Gertrude L. (Thomas), practiced prostitution. His father, LeRoy "Buck Carter" Pryor (June 7, 1915 - September 27, 1968), was a former boxer and hustler. After his alcoholic mother abandoned him when he was 10, Pryor was raised primarily by his grandmother Marie Carter, a tall, violent woman who would beat him for any of his eccentricities. Pryor was one of four children raised in his grandmother's brothel and was sexually abused at age 7. He was expelled from school at the age of 14.
His first professional performance was playing drums at a night club. Pryor served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, but spent virtually the entire stint in an army prison. According to a 1999 profile about Pryor in The New Yorker, Pryor was incarcerated for an incident that occurred while stationed in Germany. Angered that a white soldier was overly amused at the racially charged sections of Douglas Sirk's movie Imitation of Life (1959), Pryor and some other black soldiers beat and stabbed him, though not fatally.
During this time, Pryor's girlfriend gave birth to a girl named Renee. In 1960, he married Patricia Price, and they had one child together, Richard Jr. They divorced in 1961.
In 1963, Pryor moved to New York City and began performing regularly in clubs alongside performers such as Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. On one of his first nights, he opened for singer and pianist Nina Simone at New York's Village Gate. Simone recalls Pryor's bout of performance anxiety:
He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn't bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time.
Inspired by Bill Cosby, Pryor began as a middlebrow comic, with material far less controversial than what was to come. Soon, he began appearing regularly on television variety shows, such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. His popularity led to success as a comic in Las Vegas. The first five tracks on the 2005 compilation CD Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966-1974), recorded in 1966 and 1967, capture Pryor in this period.
In September 1967, Pryor had what he described in his autobiography Pryor Convictions (1995) as an "epiphany". He walked onto the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas (with Dean Martin in the audience), looked at the sold-out crowd, exclaimed over the microphone "What the fuck am I doing here!?", and walked off the stage. Afterward, Pryor began working profanity into his act, including the word nigger. His first comedy recording, the eponymous 1968 debut release on the Dove/Reprise label, captures this particular period, tracking the evolution of Pryor's routine. Around this time, his parents died--his mother in 1967 and his father in 1968.
In 1967, his daughter Elizabeth Ann was born to his girlfriend Maxine Anderson. Later that year, he married Shelley Bonis. In 1969, his daughter Rain Pryor was born. Pryor and Bonis divorced later that year.
In 1969, Pryor moved to Berkeley, California, where he immersed himself in the counterculture and rubbed elbows with the likes of Huey P. Newton and Ishmael Reed. He signed with the comedy-oriented independent record label Laff Records in 1970, and in 1971 recorded his second album, Craps (After Hours). Two years later, the relatively unknown comedian appeared in the documentary Wattstax (1973), wherein he riffed on the tragic-comic absurdities of race relations in Watts and the nation. Not long afterward, Pryor sought a deal with a larger label, and after some time, signed with Stax Records.
When his third, breakthrough album, That Nigger's Crazy (1974), was released, Laff, who claimed ownership of Pryor's recording rights, almost succeeded in getting an injunction to prevent the album from being sold. Negotiations led to Pryor's release from his Laff contract. In return for this concession, Laff was enabled to release previously unissued material, recorded between 1968 and 1973, at will. That Nigger's Crazy was a commercial and critical success; it was eventually certified Gold by the RIAA and won the Grammy Award for Best Comedic Recording at the 1975 Grammy Awards.
During the legal battle, Stax briefly closed its doors. At this time, Pryor returned to Reprise/Warner Bros. Records, which re-released That Nigger's Crazy, immediately after ...Is It Something I Said?, his first album with his new label. Like That Nigger's Crazy, the album was a hit with both critics and fans; it was eventually certified Platinum by the RIAA and won the Grammy Award for Best Comedic Recording at the 1976 Grammy Awards.
Pryor's release Bicentennial Nigger (1976) continued his streak of success. It became his third consecutive Gold album, and he collected his third consecutive Grammy for Best Comedic Recording for the album in 1977. With every successful album Pryor recorded for Warner (or later, his concert films and his 1980 freebasing accident), Laff would quickly publish an album of older material to capitalize on Pryor's growing fame--a practice they continued until 1983. The covers of Laff albums tied in thematically with Pryor movies, such as Are You Serious? for Silver Streak (1976), The Wizard of Comedy for his appearance in The Wiz (1978), and Insane for Stir Crazy (1980).
In the 1970s, Pryor wrote for such television shows as Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show, and a 1973 Lily Tomlin special, for which he shared an Emmy Award. During this period, Pryor tried to break into mainstream television. He was a guest host on the first season of Saturday Night Live and the first black person to host the show. Pryor took longtime girlfriend, actress-talk show host Kathrine McKee (sister of Lonette McKee) with him to New York, and she made a brief guest appearance with Pryor on SNL. He participated in the "word association" skit with Chevy Chase.
In 1974, Pryor was arrested for income tax evasion and served 10 days in jail.
The Richard Pryor Show premiered on NBC in 1977 but was canceled after only four episodes probably because television audiences did not respond well to his show's controversial subject matter, and Pryor was unwilling to alter his material for network censors. During the short-lived series, he portrayed the first African-American President of the United States, spoofed the Star Wars cantina, took on gun violence, and in another skit, used costumes and visual distortion to appear nude.
He married actress Deborah McGuire in 1977, but they divorced in 1978. He soon began dating Jennifer Lee; they married in 1981 and divorced the following year.
In 1979, at the height of his success, Pryor visited Africa. Upon returning to the United States, Pryor swore he would never use the word "nigger" in his stand-up comedy routine again. However, his favorite epithet, "motherfucker", remains a term of endearment on his official website.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Pryor appeared in several popular films, including Lady Sings the Blues (1972), The Mack (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Silver Streak (1976), Car Wash (1976), Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), Which Way Is Up? (1977), Greased Lightning (1977), Blue Collar (1978), Stir Crazy (1980), and Bustin' Loose (1981). Next, Pryor co-starred with Jackie Gleason in The Toy (1982).
Pryor co-wrote Blazing Saddles (1974), directed by Mel Brooks and starring Gene Wilder. Pryor was to play the lead role of Bart, but the film's production studio would not insure him, and Mel Brooks chose Cleavon Little instead. Before his horribly-damaging 1980 freebasing incident (see below), Pryor was about to start filming Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I (1981), but was replaced at the last minute by Gregory Hines. Pryor was also originally considered for the role of Billy Ray Valentine on Trading Places (1983), before Eddie Murphy won the part.
In 1983, Pryor signed a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures for US$40,000,000. This resulted in the mainstreaming of Pryor's onscreen persona and softer, more formulaic films like Superman III (1983), which earned Pryor $4,000,000; Brewster's Millions (1985), Moving (1988), and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). The only film project from this period that recalled his rough roots was Pryor's semi-autobiographic debut as a writer-director, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), which was not a major success.
Despite a reputation for constantly using profanity on and off camera, Pryor briefly hosted a children's show on CBS called Pryor's Place (1984). Like Sesame Street, Pryor's Place featured a cast of puppets, hanging out and having fun in a surprisingly friendly inner-city environment along with several children and characters portrayed by Pryor himself. However, Pryor's Place frequently dealt with more sobering issues than Sesame Street. It was canceled shortly after its debut, despite the efforts of famed puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft and a theme song by Ray Parker, Jr. of "Ghostbusters" (1984) fame.
Pryor co-hosted the Academy Awards twice and was nominated for an Emmy for a guest role on the television series, Chicago Hope. Network censors had warned Pryor about his profanity for the Academy Awards, and after a slip early in the program, a 5-second delay was instituted when returning from a commercial break. Pryor is also one of only three Saturday Night Live hosts to be subjected to a rare 5-second delay for his 1975 appearance (along with Sam Kinison in 1986 and Andrew Dice Clay in 1990).
Pryor developed a reputation for being demanding and disrespectful on film sets, and for making selfish and difficult demands. In his autobiography Kiss Me Like a Stranger, co-star Gene Wilder says that Pryor was frequently late to the set during filming of Stir Crazy, and that he demanded, among other things, a helicopter to fly him to and from set because he was the star. Pryor was also accused of using allegations of on-set racism to force the hand of film producers into giving him more money. Also from Wilder's book:
One day during our lunch hour in the last week of filming, the craft service man handed out slices of watermelon to each of us. Richard, the whole camera crew, and I sat together in a big sound studio eating a number of watermelon slices, talking and joking. As a gag, some members of the crew used a piece of watermelon as a Frisbee, and tossed it back and forth to each other. One piece of watermelon landed at Richard's feet. He got up and went home. Filming stopped. The next day, Richard announced that he knew very well what the significance of watermelon was. He said that he was quitting show business and would not return to this film. The day after that, Richard walked in, all smiles. I wasn't privy to all the negotiations that went on between Columbia and Richard's lawyers but the camera operator who had thrown that errant piece of watermelon had been fired that day. I assume now that Richard was using drugs during "Stir Crazy".
He appeared in Harlem Nights (1989), a comedy-drama crime film starring three generations of black comedians (Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Redd Foxx).
Pryor was a Freemason in a lodge in Peoria, Illinois.
He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. In 1990, Pryor suffered a second and more severe heart attack and underwent triple heart bypass surgery.
Freebase cocaine incident:
On June 9, 1980, during the making of the film Bustin' Loose, Pryor set himself on fire after freebasing cocaine and drinking 151-proof rum. While on fire, he ran down Parthenia Street from his Los Angeles, California, home, until being subdued by police. He was taken to a hospital, where he was treated for burns covering more than half of his body. Pryor spent six weeks in recovery at the Herpolscheimer Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital. His daughter, Rain, stated that Pryor poured high-proof rum over his body and set himself ablaze in a bout of drug-induced psychosis. Later, in an on-camera interview, Pryor commented, "I tried to commit suicide. Next question."
Pryor incorporated a description of the incident into his comedy show Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982). He joked that the event was caused by dunking a cookie into a glass of low-fat and pasteurized milk, causing an explosion. At the end of the bit, he poked fun at people who told jokes about it by waving a lit match and saying, "What's that? Richard Pryor running down the street".
After his "final performance", Pryor did not stay away from stand-up comedy long. Within a year, he filmed and released a new concert film and accompanying album, Richard Pryor: Here and Now (1983), which he directed himself. He also wrote and directed a fictionalized account of his life, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), which revolved around the 1980 freebasing incident.
Marriages and relationships:
Pryor was married seven times to five different women. His wives were:
Patricia Price, whom he married in 1960 and divorced the following year. From this marriage, a son, Richard Pryor Jr. (1961), was born.,
Shelley Bonis, whom he married in 1967 and divorced in 1969.,
Deborah McGuire, whom he married on 22 September 1977; they divorced the following year.,
Jennifer Lee, whom he married in August 1981. They divorced in October 1982, but later remarried on 29 June 2001 and remained married until Pryor's death.,
Flynn Belaine, whom he married in October 1986. They were divorced in July 1987, but later remarried on 1 April 1990. They divorced again in July 1991.,
Pryor had six children:
Richard Pryor Jr., born in 1961, the child of Pryor and his first wife, Patricia Price.,
Elizabeth Ann, born in April 1967, the child of Pryor and Maxine Anderson (aka Maxine Silverman).,
Rain Pryor, born 16 July 1969, the child of Pryor and his second wife, Shelley Bonis.,
Steven, born in 1984, the child of Pryor and his fifth wife, Flynn Belaine.,
Kelsey, born in October 1987, the child of Pryor and his fifth wife, Flynn Belaine.,
Franklin, born in 1987, the child of Pryor and actress/model Geraldine Mason.,
Pryor also had relationships with actresses Pam Grier and Margot Kidder.
In his later years starting in the early 1990s, Pryor used a power-operated vehicle/scooter due to multiple sclerosis (also known as MS, which he said stood for "More Shit"). He appears on the scooter in his last film appearance, a small role in David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) playing an auto repair garage manager named Arnie.
In 1998, Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. According to former Kennedy Center President Lawrence J. Wilker, Pryor was selected as the first recipient of the Prize because "as a stand-up comic, writer, and actor, he struck a chord, and a nerve, with America, forcing it to look at large social questions of race and the more tragicomic aspects of the human condition. Though uncompromising in his wit, Pryor, like Twain, projects a generosity of spirit that unites us. They were both trenchant social critics who spoke the truth, however outrageous."
Rhino Records remastered all of Pryor's Reprise and WB albums for inclusion in the box set ...And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (2000).
In early 2000, Pryor appeared in the cold open of The Norm Show in the episode entitled "Norm vs. The Boxer". He played an elderly man in a wheelchair who lost the rights to in-home nursing when he kept attacking the nurses before attacking Norm himself.
In 2001, he remarried Jennifer Lee, who had also become his manager.
In 2002, a television documentary depicted Pryor's life and career. Broadcast in the UK as part of the Channel 4 series Kings of Black Comedy, it was produced, directed and narrated by David Upshal and featured rare clips from Pryor's 1960s stand-up appearances and movies such as Silver Streak (1976), Blue Collar (1978), Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1978), and Stir Crazy (1980). Contributors included George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Whoopi Goldberg, Ice-T, Paul Mooney, Joan Rivers, and Lily Tomlin. The show tracked down the two cops who had rescued Pryor from his "freebasing incident", former managers, and even school friends from Pryor's home town of Peoria, Illinois. In the US, the show went out as part of the Heroes of Black Comedy series on Comedy Central, narrated by Don Cheadle.
In 2002, Pryor and his wife/manager, Jennifer Lee Pryor, won legal rights to all the Laff material, which amounted to almost 40 hours of reel-to-reel analog tape. After going through the tapes and getting Richard's blessing, Jennifer Lee Pryor gave Rhino Records access to the tapes in 2004. These tapes, including the entire Craps album, form the basis of the Feb 01, 2005 double-CD release Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966-1974).
A television documentary, Richard Pryor: I Ain't Dead Yet, #*%$#@!! (2003) consisted of archival footage of Pryor's performances and testimonials from fellow comedians, including Dave Chappelle, Denis Leary, Chris Rock, and Wanda Sykes, on Pryor's influence on comedy.
In 2004, Pryor was voted No. 1 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
In late 2004, his sister said he had lost his voice as result of his multiple sclerosis. However, on January 9, 2005, Pryor's wife, Jennifer Lee, rebutted this statement in a post on Pryor's official website, citing Richard as saying: "I'm sick of hearing this shit about me not talking... not true... I have good days, bad days... but I still am a talkin' motherfucker!"
In a 2005 British poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, Pryor was voted the 10th greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
On December 10, 2005, Pryor suffered a heart attack in Los Angeles. He was taken to a local hospital after his wife's attempts to resuscitate him failed. He was pronounced dead at 7:58 am PST. He was 65 years old. His widow Jennifer was quoted as saying, "At the end, there was a smile on his face." He was cremated, and his ashes were given to his family.
Remembrance and legacy:
In a tribute made by Jackson Browne to roadies and fans--"The Load-Out", released on the album Running on Empty (1977)--the lyrics state: "we got Richard Pryor on the video" on the tour bus.
An image of Pryor can be seen on the Rage Against the Machine music video for their cover of Soulsonic Force 's "Renegades of Funk" (2001).
A retrospective of Pryor's film work, concentrating on the 1970s, titled A Pryor Engagement, opened at Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinemas for a two-week run in February 2013.
In films and television:
On December 19, 2005, BET aired a Pryor special. It included commentary from fellow comedians, and insight into his upbringing.
On March 1, 2008, fellow comedian George Carlin performed his final HBO special. An image of Pryor can be seen in the background throughout his set. Carlin would mention Pryor's death in his memoir, Last Words (2009), noting their friendly rivalry that lasted until Carlin finally beat him "in the Heart Attack 5000".
In the episode 'Taxes and Death' or Get Him to the Sunset Strip'(2012), the voice of Richard Pryor is played by Eddie Griffin in the satirical TV show Black Dynamite.
On May 31, 2013, Showtime debuted the documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marina Zenovich. The executive producers are Pryor's widow Jennifer Lee Pryor and Roy Ackerman. Interviewees include Dave Chappelle, Whoopi Goldberg, Jesse Jackson, Quincy Jones, George Lopez, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, Jr., Lily Tomlin, and Robin Williams.
A planned biopic, entitled Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?, was being produced by Chris Rock and Adam Sandler. The film would have starred Marlon Wayans as the young Pryor. Other actors previously attached include Mike Epps and Eddie Murphy. The film would have been directed by Bill Condon and was still in development with no release date, as of February 2013.
The biopic remained in limbo, and went through several producers until it was announced in January 2014 that it was being backed by The Weinstein Company with Lee Daniels as director. It was further announced, in August 2014, that the biopic will have Oprah Winfrey as producer and will star Mike Epps as Pryor.
From June 7 to 9, 2013, SiriusXM hosted "Richard Pryor Radio", a three-day tribute which featured his stand-up comedy and full live concerts. "Richard Pryor Radio" replaced The Foxxhole for the duration of the event.
Pryor was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
Awards in Pryor's name:
The animal rights organization PETA gives out an award in Pryor's name to people who have done outstanding work to alleviate animal suffering. Pryor was active in animal rights and was deeply concerned about the plight of elephants in circuses and zoos.
Artist Preston Jackson created a life-sized bronze statue in dedication to the beloved comedian and named it "Richard Pryor: More than Just a Comedian". It was placed at the corner of State and Washington streets in downtown Peoria, IL on May 1, 2015 close to Richard's neighborhood he grew up in with his mother. The unveiling will be held Sunday, May 3rd, 2015.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license