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Richard Pryor Biography - Selected works

comedy live people life

1940–2005

Comedian, actor, writer

In the 1970s and 1980s Richard Pryor was one of America's top comedians, an actor, writer, and stand-up artist whose irreverent albums sold in the millions. Pryor mined both personal and social tragedy for his comic material and peppered his appearances with outrageous language and adult humor. Even at the peak of his popularity, however, he suffered the dire consequences of drug and alcohol abuse—a heart attack, a suicide attempt, and the onset of multiple sclerosis. His disease made Pryor a recluse, and from the early 1990s onward he rarely left his California mansion and saw only a small cadre of friends. Pryor's last gift to his adoring fans was a memoir that offered his trademark blend of tragedy and comedy. Pryor passed away in 2005.

One of Pryor's ex-wives, Jennifer Lee, once told Premiere magazine: "Richard's so isolated from the human race. When you're with him now, you feel a kind of solitude you don't even feel when you're by yourself." Pryor's is indeed the tragic story of a talented personality who took a path of self-destruction, a comic who could draw laughs from his own misfortunes but who was powerless to change his habits until the damage had been done. Premiere correspondent David Handelman theorized: "Like many celebrities, Pryor turned to drugs in part out of insecurity about his fame. But he had the added guilt trip of being perhaps the most successful black man in a country of disenfranchised blacks."

Pryor was not the first African-American comedian to succeed as a stand-up comic. He followed in the footsteps of Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, among others. He became unique—and a pioneer in his own right—when he created a bold new comedy of character, turning African-American life into humorous performance art without softening either the message or its delivery. He could glide effortlessly from portraying an elderly wino to mimicking a cheetah poised to bag a gazelle. With an astounding repertoire of accents and body lingo, Pryor often played a predator one moment and a victim the next. His was a comedy forged from life's tragic moments.

Pryor's audience included a number of comics who have since risen to fame. "I just dreamed about being like Richard Pryor," Keenen Ivory Wayans told Premiere. "Pryor started it all. He's Yoda. If Pryor had not come along, there would not be an Eddie Murphy or a Keenen Ivory Wayans or a Damon Wayans or an Arsenio Hall—or even a [white comedian like] Sam Kinison, for that matter. He made the blueprint for the progressive thinking of black comedians, unlocked that irreverent style."

Bill Cosby told People magazine: "For Richard, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it." Given Pryor's background, it is not surprising that he entwined comedy and tragedy so brilliantly. He was born in Peoria, Illinois, in December 1940, to an unwed mother. He had always claimed that he was raised in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute. His parents, LeRoy and Gertrude Pryor, married when he was three, but the union did not last. Ultimately he chose to live with his grandmother, who was not shy about administering beatings.

At the height of his fame, Pryor declared that he had no bitterness about his unconventional upbringing. He revealed to People that his mother "wasn't very strong, but she tried. At least she didn't flush me down the toilet, like some." He added: "The biggest moment of my life was when my grandmother was with me on the Mike Douglas Show." On the other hand, Pryor's former bodyguard and spiritual adviser Rashon Khan told Premiere that Pryor was sometimes sexually abused in his childhood environment and was "exposed to a lot of crazy stuff." Khan suggested that these childhood traumas helped set the stage for Pryor's drug abuse even before he became established in his career. "The problem that Richard was having with Richard was what happened when he was a kid," Khan said. "It created a void so big, it didn't matter how famous he got."

In school, Pryor was often in trouble with the authorities. His one positive experience came when he was eleven. One of his teachers, Juliette Whittaker, cast him in a community theater performance and then let him entertain his classmates with his antics. Years later, Pryor gave Whittaker the Emmy Award he earned writing comedy for a Lily Tomlin special.

Pryor was expelled from high school after striking a teacher. He never returned. Instead, he sought work in a packing house and then, in 1958, joined the army. He spent his two-year hitch in West Germany, once again clashing with his superiors. Pryor returned home to Peoria in 1960, married the first of his five wives, and fathered his second child, Richard Pryor, Jr. His first child, daughter Renee, was born three years earlier.

The owner of a popular African-American nightclub in Peoria gave Pryor his first professional opportunity. By the early 1960s the comedian was performing on a circuit that included East St. Louis, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh. Then, in 1963, Pryor decided to move to New York City. He settled briefly in Greenwich Village, where he performed an act with strong similarities to Bill Cosby's. Pryor told People: "I'll never forget going up to Harlem and seeing all those black people. Jesus, just knowing there were that many of us made me feel better."

Pryor broke into television in New York City in 1964 when he appeared on a series called On Broadway Tonight. Other offers followed, including a couple from The Ed Sullivan Show and the Merv Griffin Show. Pryor pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, where he supported himself with bit parts in movies such as The Green Berets, starring John Wayne, and Wild in the Streets, a teen-exploitation film. He also continued to play to live audiences, especially in Las Vegas showrooms. "In his early days there was a lot of Bill Cosby in Richard's act," Cosby himself noted in People. "Then one evening I was in the audience when Richard took on a whole new persona—his own, in front of me and everyone else. Richard killed the Bill Cosby in his act, made people hate it. Then he worked on them, doing pure Richard Pryor, and it was the most astonishing metamorphosis I have ever seen. He was magnificent."

By the late 1960s Pryor was already indulging in one hundred dollars worth of cocaine a day. While his new, more personal act found followers, it also alienated the management in Las Vegas. Pryor clashed with landlords and hotel clerks, was audited by the Internal Revenue Service for nonpayment of taxes between 1967 and 1970, and was sued for battery by one of his wives. He disappeared into the counterculture community in Berkeley, California, and did not work for several years. Then he resurfaced in 1972 with a new stand-up act and a supporting role in the film Lady Sings the Blues, a drama for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.

Pryor also contributed his writing talents to other comics. He wrote bits for The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son and helped Mel Brooks to write the classic Western film comedy Blazing Saddles. In 1973 he earned an Emmy Award for the special Lily, starring Lily Tomlin. That provocative show also proved a vehicle for Pryor, when he teamed with Tomlin for a skit about a raggedy black wino and a prim, "tasteful lady."

At a Glance …

Born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor, on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, IL; died of a heart attack on December 10, 2005, in Northridge, CA; son of LeRoy and Gertrude (Thomas) Pryor; married and divorced five times; seven children. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1958–60.

Career: Comedian, actor, and writer.

Selected Awards: Emmy Award, 1973, for Lily; Writers Guild Award and American Academy of Humor Award, both 1974, for Blazing Saddles; five Grammy awards for best comedy albums; Emmy Award nomination and Image Award nomination for Chicago Hope, 1996; Hall of Fame Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1996; recipient of the first Mark Twain Prize, 1998; MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000.

In 1976, Pryor wrote and starred in Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings. He made a bigger splash, however, in the film Silver Streak, a mixture of comedy and suspense that centers on a murderous train ride. Even though he had only a supporting role in this 1976 release starring Gene Wilder, Pryor earned the bulk of the critics' attention. The film grossed $30 million at the box office, and it opened new venues for the versatile Pryor.

Pryor was at the height of his form as a live comedian by the late 1970s. He had earned Grammy Awards for the 1974 album That Nigger's Crazy and the 1976 work Bicentennial Nigger. Both of the albums went platinum in sales. In all, Pryor earned five Grammy Awards for best comedy album, but the 1979 movie Richard Pryor Live in Concert remains his "indisputable moment of glory," to quote Handelman. In the New York Times Magazine, James McPherson claimed that Pryor was creating a whole new style in American comedy, a style born more of the theater than of traditional humor. The characters, McPherson wrote, "are winos, junkies, whores, street fighters, blue-collar drunks, pool hustlers—all the failures who are an embarrassment to the black middle class and stereotypes in the minds of most whites. The black middle class fears the glorification of those images and most whites fear them in general. Pryor talks like them; he imitates their styles…. He enters into his people and allows whatever is comic in them, whatever is human, to evolve out of what they say and how they look into a total scene. It is part of Richard Pryor's genius that, through the selective use of facial expressions, gestures,… speech and movements, he can create a scene that is comic and at the same time recognizable as profoundly human."

Some of those "profoundly human" comedy scenes were based on unhappy events in Pryor's life. He had a serious heart attack in 1978 and underwent yet another divorce after a violent episode on New Year's Eve that culminated in his riddling his wife's car with bullets. These two grave incidents are given the full comic treatment in Richard Pryor Live in Concert. At a point in the act, Pryor "becomes" his heart itself during the attack, with asides from other parts of his body. He also "becomes" his ex-wife's car under attack.

The theme would be recreated two years later after an even more dangerous event. By 1980 Pryor was freebasing cocaine, using volatile ether to help light the drug for smoking. No one is clear about exactly what happened on June 9, 1980. At first, Pryor claimed the fire was started during the freebasing process. Later, he stated that he poured rum on himself and set himself on fire. At any rate, he nearly burned himself to death, suffering severe injuries to half his body. Early reports told of his untimely death, but he survived and underwent an anguishing rehabilitation.

The healing process did not speak to his addiction, however. He took painkillers in the hospital and returned to freebasing when he was released. Nevertheless, he began to see the fatal consequences of drug use, and this attitude is evident in his final concert movie, Live on Sunset Strip. The film contains the well-known Pryor routine about his accident, his drug use, and his stay in the hospital. New York magazine contributor David Denby called Live on Sunset Strip "a perfect entertainment." The critic added: "Richard Pryor works directly with the life around him, and he digs deeper into fear and lust and anger and pain than many of the novelists and playwrights now taken seriously. Like any great actor, he dramatizes emotion with his whole body, but his mind is so quick and his moods so volatile, he's light-years ahead of any actor delivering a text. Working from deep inside his own experience and understanding of what a human being is and is capable of, he can shake you to your roots."

Live on Sunset Strip was released in 1982. The following year Pryor made concerted efforts to clear his system of drugs and alcohol. He joined a rehabilitation program and worked with other addicts to overcome his problems. He also tackled a project that was daring indeed—he co-wrote, directed, and starred in the 1985 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. A thinly veiled autobiography, Jo Jo Dancer stars Pryor as a comedian who relives his life immediately following a near fatal accident. Critics praised the intentions of the movie—especially the fact that Pryor hired African-American workers for every aspect of the production—but the film was not a hit. Detroit Free Press critic Catherine Rambeau, for instance, cited the work for its "honorable premise," but faulted it for a "lack of focus."

Los Angeles Times reviewer Peter Rainer speculated that, as far as movies in general are concerned, Pryor "seems to have taken a wrong turn." A number of Pryor's movies did brisk business at the box office, but in Rainer's words, they led Pryor "into creative oblivion." Films such as The Toy, Brewster's Millions, Stir Crazy, and Bustin' Loose show a Pryor who "is resignedly bland…. Anything malign or threatening has been bleached out," to quote Rainer. Pryor's ex-wife Jennifer Lee told Premiere: "Don't bother looking for a pattern to Richard's movies…. He's lazy, he took the money, he doesn't care."

Others had greater respect for Pryor, however. Eddie Murphy asked Pryor to co-star in the 1989 movie Harlem Nights, and he held a huge comedy concert in Pryor's honor. Commenting in Premiere on the restrictive social atmosphere that existed during Pryor's rise to fame, comedienne Lily Tomlin expressed astonishment over his ability to achieve anything at all. "Richard lost jobs, was blackballed and everything else," Tomlin said, "because people thought he was too hard to deal with or incorrigible or out of control. Now people's careers are built on drug use or rehab. And I can't imagine anything happening to Eddie Murphy like what's happened to Richard. Richard paid the price for using language on the stage,… and Eddie has been celebrated for it. And I don't think Eddie would ever be conflicted the way Richard was about playing [Las] Vegas, playing white clubs with white managers and taking white money. It was a different consciousness."

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that attacks the central nervous system. The disease and his continuing heart trouble severely limited Pryor's ability to communicate and confined him to a wheelchair, and he became increasingly isolated at his mansion in the hills of California. His heart ailments finally required triple bypass surgery. Pryor's physical limitations and frail, gaunt appearance were a great source of frustration for him. One of Pryor's closest friends, Paul Mooney, told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "He [Pryor] has always been the life of the party. He does not like people seeing him like this, and he does not like being like this." Despite these limitations, Pryor worked with author Todd Gold to release a memoir, Pryor Convictions, that recounted both the trials and the joys of his eventful life. Though readers caught traces of Pryor's brand of humor, his print comedy failed to stand up to the incendiary nature of his live performances.

In 1998, Pryor received the first Mark Twain Prize in celebration of American humor in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Over 2,000 guests, including Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Morgan Freeman, Richard Belzer, Tim Allen, and Damon Wayans, attended the ceremony. The ceremony featured video clips of some of Pryor's most famous comedic moments interspersed with comments and tributes from comedians and actors who were influenced by Pryor. Although he was unable to rise from his chair, Pryor graciously accepted the award with a whispered "Thank you." In a written statement that was quoted in Jet, Pryor wrote: "I feel great about accepting this prize. It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man—now that's funny. Seriously, though, two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people's hatred!"

In the years that followed, Pryor was universally acclaimed for his contributions to American humor. Handelman noted: "Even though his best work had nothing to do with one-liners, Pryor [was] unquestionably still the most important and influential stand-up comedian of the past 25 years. Using raw street language, he [turned] black American life into breathtaking one-man theater, his rubbery face, multioctave voice, and lithe body physicalizing every situation." As Damon Wayans told Jet, "If [a comedian] hasn't copied from Richard Pryor, then you're probably not funny. Like Michael Jordan has defined the game of basketball, Richard Pryor has defined stand up comedy." Pryor finally succumbed to a heart attack on December 10, 2005, at his home in Northridge, California.

Selected works

Books

(With Todd Gold) Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. Pantheon, 1995.

Films

Lady Sings the Blues, 1972.
Uptown Saturday Night, 1974.
Silver Streak, 1976.
Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, 1976.
Blue Collar, 1978.
The Wiz, 1978.
Richard Pryor Live in Concert, 1979.
Stir Crazy, 1980.
Bustin' Loose, 1981.
Live on Sunset Strip, 1982.
Some Kind of Hero, 1982.
The Toy, 1982.
Superman III, 1983.
Brewster's Millions, 1985.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1985.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 1989.
Harlem Nights, 1989.
Another You, 1991.
Lost Highway, 1997.

Recordings

That Nigger's Crazy, Reprise, 1974.
Bicentennial Nigger, Warner Bros., 1976.
Greatest Hits, Warner Bros., 1977.
Wanted: Live in Concert, Warner Bros., 1979.
Live on Sunset Strip, Warner Bros., 1982.
Who Me? I'm Not Him, Polygram, 1994.
The Wizard of Comedy, Loose Cannon, 1995.
And It's Deep, Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968–1992), Rhino, 2000.
Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966–1974), Rhino, 2005.

Screenplays

Blazing Saddles, 1974.
Car Wash, 1976.
Silver Streak, 1976.
Blue Collar, 1978.
Stir Crazy, 1980.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1986.

Television

The Richard Pryor Show, 1977.

Guest and host of numerous television shows, including The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.

Sources

Books

Haskins, James, A Man and His Madness, Beaufort Books, 1984.

Rovin, Jeff, Richard Pryor: Black and Blue, Bantam, 1984.

Williams, John A., and Dennis A. Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.

Periodicals

Commonweal, May 7, 1982.

Detroit Free Press, May 2, 1986.

Ebony, July 1986; February 1, 2006.

Entertainment Weekly, October 11, 1991; December 23, 2005.

Film Comment, July-August 1982.

Jet, November 9, 1998; December 26, 2005.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 15, 1999.

Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1986; November 24, 1989.

New York, March 29, 1982.

New York Times, January 9, 1977; May 2, 1986; May 18, 1986.

New York Times Magazine, April 27, 1975.

People, March 13, 1978; December 26, 2005.

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 26, 1992.

Premiere, June 1991; January 1992.

Progressive, June 1982.

Time, December 19, 2005.

On-line

Richard Pryor, www.richardpryor.com (March 23, 2006).

Michael Pryor (1957-) Biography - Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Work in Progress [next] [back] Candace (J.) Pruett (1968-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Writings, Work in Progress

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