Richard Pryor (born 1940) was one of the most influential stand-up comedians of his generation, and starred in a number of hit films and comedy recordings. He created a new type of humor, one that blended self-effacing statements about being African American with sharp political insights.
Richard Pryor was born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois to LeRoy Pryor, Jr. (also known as Buck Carter) and Gertrude Thomas. A tough, streetwise kid, Pryor's father won a Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago at the age of 18. His mother worked as a prostitute and bookkeeper. Both parents were violent and alcoholic. Born out of wedlock, Richard suffered not only the stigma of illegitimacy, but also that of racism.
Pryor's youth was spent in a house of prostitution run by his grandmother, Marie Carter. His mother often disappeared for months at a time, and finally abandoned him when he was ten. His father rarely saw him. Therefore, Pryor's grandmother was his sole means of support as a child. She was strict and beat him when he misbehaved. Pryor frequented pool halls and was often in trouble. He was also the victim of physical and sexual abuse. When he was six, he was molested by a teenage pedophile named "Bubba," who, many years later, brought his own son to Pryor for an autograph. Rather than dwelling on his anger over the incident, Pryor worried that the pedophile's son was being subjected to abuse.
Discovered His Talent
Around the age of ten, Pryor realized that he could make people laugh and pay attention to him. "I was a skinny little black kid with big eyes that took in the whole world and a wide smile that begged for more attention than anyone had time to give," Pryor wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. In searching for love, he turned to comedy. By intentionally falling off a porch railing, he got people to laugh. On a rare outing with his father to a Jerry Lewis movie, Pryor saw his father break up with laughter. He decided to try to make his father and others laugh to win their approval and love.
One teacher in the several elementary schools he attended encouraged him. Marguerite Parker allowed him to stand in front of the class and entertain if he arrived on time. Another teacher, Juliette Whittaker at the Carver Community Center, gave him a chance to act. While at the Center, the 11 year old Pryor observed a rehearsal of Rumpelstiltskin. Telling Whittaker he would take any part, he proceeded to memorize all the parts. From Whittaker's plays, he received self esteem. She stated, "This child had a drive to be; he loved making people laugh, the spotlight, the attention you get. He needed that, the feeling of self-esteem he got. He was somebody." His comic abilities also created enemies who wanted to beat him up. He defused their envy with his jokes. Pryor was expelled from high school, but at the Carver Community Center, he was the star of a number of Ms. Whittaker's plays.
A Start in Stand-Up Comedy
By the age of 17, Pryor had fathered an illegitimate daughter, Renee. To escape from his responsibilities and his neighborhood, and to better his station in life, he joined the army the following year. Like the comedians Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, Pryor saw the armed forces as an opportunity for advancement. His army career was undistinguished until he was discharged for slashing another soldier with a switchblade.
Shortly thereafter, he walked into Harold's Club in Peoria, and talked himself into a job. For the next several years, he acquired a reputation as a stand-up comedian in the black clubs of Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo. By 1963, he was a stand-up comedian in New York City. His hero and obsession was Bill Cosby. Pryor appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin television shows. He was one of the first black comedians to use the painful events from his own life for his comedy monologue. After his father's death, his memories of the hustlers, prostitutes, junkies, and winos of his youth took over his comedy routine. People Weekly noted, "Pryor had found his own stand-up persona, which grafted the profane edge of Lenny Bruce onto the pathos of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp." Pauline Kael portrayed him as "a master of lyrical obscenity; the only great poet-satirist among our comics." During the mid-1960s, Pryor's increased success brought more money and more stress, leading to a $200 a day cocaine habit.
Pryor moved to Los Angeles where he began to get small parts in movies. His big break came in 1972, when he played opposite Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. From 1974 until 1980 he starred in a number of hit movies, including Uptown Saturday Night, Car Wash, Silver Streak, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, and Stir Crazy. During this time, Pryor also wrote comedy for the television shows, Sanford and Son, and The Flip Wilson Show, and aided Mel Brooks in writing Blazing Saddles.
Drugs and Violence Out of Control
While his public persona was a success, his private life was a disaster. Although he was making millions of dollars, he was using large amounts of drugs and becoming self destructive. In 1977, he suffered a heart attack. Shortly after the death of his grandmother, in 1980, he attempted to commit suicide by dousing himself with cognac and igniting himself with a cigarette lighter. Although he initially claimed it was an accident caused when he was high on cocaine, he later admitted that he intended to kill himself. He spent six weeks in a burn unit, which he described as one of the worst experiences of his life.
Pryor had a history of violence going back to his youth. When he was high on cocaine, he frequently beat the women he was involved with. He almost beat to death his fourth wife, Jennifer Lee, in 1979, while both were under the influence of alcohol and drugs. In his autobiography, he stated, "Uninterested in relationships, I caught women as if they were taxis." In other words, he got in and out of relationships very quickly.
Pryor married six times, the last two marriages to the same woman. He has seven children: Renee, Richard, Jr., Elizabeth Anne, Rain, Steven, Franklin, and Kelsey, although he doesn't currently acknowledge Renee. He also has a grandchild, Randis.
Cleaned Up His Act
In 1982, Pryor attempted to rehabilitate himself by joining a drug program to fight his addictions. The following year, after making the film Superman III, for which he received $4 million, he returned to abusing drugs and women. His daughter, Rain, recounted a turning point in his life "My dad was a very scared, closed person. Dad spent most of my childhood locked away in his room with his women and his drugs. He lived in his own reality. He trusted no one." In 1993, in Hawaii, Pryor had an epiphany and then a symbolic baptism. He threw his cocaine pipe in the garbage and allowed Rain to lead him into the ocean and immerse him in the water, although he was phobic about water. Rain stated, "For my dad, letting me lead him into the water was an expression of trust, almost unheard of for him. I think he was willing to trust me because I was a child. Why would I want to hurt him?"
The Lowest Point
With his life starting to get on track, Pryor wrote, directed and starred in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, a semi-autobiographical movie. In 1986, he was stricken with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that destroys the protective sheath around the nerves. MS affects the ability to balance and walk; eventually an MS victim cannot even move. Pryor discovered that something was wrong while filming the movie Critical Condition. When the director, Michael Apted, asked Pryor to walk over to him. Pryor's body would not respond. When he was diagnosed with MS, Pryor was devastated. "I was depressed; it was the lowest point of my life. But I struggled with hope … " In 1990, he had a minor heart attack and his MS got worse. He could not get out of bed. Pryor stated, "We take so much for granted, but man, lose the movement of your legs and you begin to take a closer look at life." With the aid of a personal trainer, he was able to walk again. "Since the earthquakes … didn't kill me, the drugs didn't kill me, the fire didn't kill me (although it hurt like a bitch), and my ex-wives (God bless them all) didn't kill me, there is no way I'm going to let the MS kill me." In his last film, Another You, released in 1991, Pryor appeared clearly ailing, a fragile shell of his former manic self. In 1991, he suffered a massive heart attack, and needed quadruple bypass surgery.
Pryor received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1993. In 1995, his autobiography Pryor Convictions and Other Sentences, was published. He was awarded the first Mark Twain Prize to celebrate American humor in 1998. Too weak to rise from his wheelchair, Pryor could barely whisper "thank you" when he accepted his award. The comedian wrote in a statement, "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."
Further Reading on Richard Pryor
Parker, Janice, Great African Americans in Film, New York, Crabtree Publishing, 1997.
Pryor, Richard, Pryor Convictions-and Other Life Sentences, New York, Pantheon, 1995.
Williams, John A. and Dennis A. Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, April 30, 1993, p. 16; June 10, 1994, p. 76.
Jet, June 5, 1995, p. 58; November 9, 1998, p. 16.
The New York Times Magazine, January 17, 1999, p. 28.
People Weekly, May 29, 1995, p. 76.