Richard Pryor is an iconoclastic comedian who earned particular acclaim in the 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to performing as a stand-up comic, Mr. Pryor has worked for the film industry as both an actor and a screenwriter.
Born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Mr. Pryor grew up in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother, Gertrude L. (née Thomas), practiced prostitution. His father, LeRoy "Buck Carter" Pryor, was a former boxer and hustler. After his alcoholic mother abandoned him when he was 10, Mr. Pryor was raised primarily by his grandmother Marie Carter, a tall, violent woman who would beat him for any of his eccentricities. Richard 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.
In 1963, Mr. 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.
Inspired by Bill Cosby, Richard 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.
His first comedy recording, the eponymous 1968 debut release on the Dove/Reprise label, captures this particular period, tracking the evolution of Mr. Pryor's routine.
In 1969, Richard 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, Richard Pryor sought a deal with a larger label, and he signed with Stax Records in 1973.
Later Mr. Pryor returned to Reprise/Warner Bros. Records. 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 Mr. Pryor was unwilling to alter his material for network censors.
In 1979, at the height of his success, Mr. Pryor visited Africa. 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, Richard Pryor co-starred with Jackie Gleason in The Toy (1982).
Richard Pryor co-wrote Blazing Saddles (1974), directed by Mel Brooks and starring Gene Wilder. Mr. 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), Mr. 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. He was also originally considered for the role of Billy Ray Valentine on Trading Places (1983), before Eddie Murphy won the part.
In 1983, Richard 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Pryor briefly hosted a children's show on CBS called Pryor's Place (1984). 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.