Richard Pryor, American actor, writer. Served with United States Army, 1958-1960. Member National Academy Recording Arts and Sciences, Writers Guild American.
Born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor grew up in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother, Gertrude L. (née 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 seven. 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.
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, The Merv Griffin 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 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 (1972), 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 he signed with Stax Records in 1973.
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.
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 black 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.
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), The Muppet Movie (1979), 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 million and he started his own production company, Indigo Productions. Softer, more formulaic films followed, including Superman III (1983), which earned Pryor $4 million; 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.
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 a.m. 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. Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter believes Pryor's fatal heart attack was caused by coronary artery disease that was at least partially brought about by years of tobacco smoking.
Served with United States Army, 1958-1960. Member National Academy Recording Arts and Sciences, Writers Guild American.
: Pryor was a Freemason in a lodge in Peoria, Illinois.
In November 1977, after many years of heavy smoking and drinking, Pryor suffered a mild heart attack. He soon recovered and resumed performing again by January the following year. 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.
On the late evening of June 9, 1980, during the making of the film Stir Crazy, after days of freebasing cocaine, Pryor poured 151-proof rum all over himself and lit himself on fire. While ablaze, 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 second and third degree burns covering more than half of his body. Pryor spent six weeks in recovery at the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital. His daughter, Rain, stated that the incident happened as a result of a bout of drug-induced psychosis; later, however, in an on-camera interview, Pryor said: "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.
Pryor was married seven times to five 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 Bonus is, whom he married in 1967 and divorced in 1969.
Deborah McGuire, whom he married on September 22, 1977; they divorced the following year.
Jennifer Lee, whom he married in August 1981. They divorced in October 1982, but later remarried on June 29, 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 April 1, 1990. They divorced again in July 1991.
Named one of 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time...Named one of 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Times (chosen #1), Comedy Central, 2004. Recipient Grammy award, "...and It's Deep Too!", 2002, Lifetime Achievement Honoree, American Comedy Awards, 1992, CableACE Best Entertainment/Cultural Documentary or International Special, 1993, Hall of Fame award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1996, Mark Twain prize for American Humor (first recipient), Kennedy Center, 1998.