Richard Pryor

Sep 24th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Richard Pryor1940-2005  Richard Pryor rose from extreme poverty to become a household name in the entertainment industry. An award-winning writer, actor, and director, Pryor is considered by many to have been one of the greatest comedians in history.

Unusual Circumstances

Pryor was born on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois. His father, LeRoy “Buck Carter” Pryor, worked as a barman, and his mother, Gertrude Thomas, was a prostitute in her mother-in-law’s brothel. Raised in an unstable environment of alcoholism and illegal activities, Pryor kept his own company and became an astute observer of human behavior. His surroundings took a heavy toll on him, however, and his parents’ marriage ended in a bitter divorce when Pryor was 10 years old.

By age 12, he had gained attention at school plays by displaying a talent for improvisation and comedic wit. One teacher arranged talent shows for Pryor, which kept him interested in school. At age 14, however, he was expelled for unruly behavior. Afterward, Pryor held an assortment of odd jobs before joining the Army in 1958. While enlisted, he performed in amateur comedy and “open mic” shows, but continued to be personally erratic. Pryor was discharged in 1960 after stabbing another serviceman during an altercation at a base in Germany.

Pryor returned to Peoria and found work as master of ceremonies in a local nightclub. He married his girlfriend and fathered a son; it was the first of Pryor’s seven marriages to five different women (he remarried two of his wives), and the boy was the first of six children. After seeing Bill Cosby rise to national fame as a comedian, Pryor determined that he was talented enough to do the same. In 1963, he moved to New York City in an attempt to “make it in the mainstream,” and launched a full-time, professional standup career. Pryor quickly became a popular performer, and made it onto bills with Richie Havens and Bob Dylan.

Even among such peers as George Carlin, Joan Rivers, and Dick Gregory, Pryor distinguished himself, and earned appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Merv Griffin Show. With success, however, his dependency on cocaine increased, an addiction he had struggled with from a young age. In 1966, Pryor appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and interest in him as a film star began to escalate. He made The Busy Body, a Sid Caesar film, which was released in 1967. But his drug addiction, the death of his father, and a tumultuous personal life all conspired to lead Pryor to a panic attack during a performance in Las Vegas, Nevada. His meteoric rise to fame faltered as rapidly as it had begun.

The Rise of a Great Talent

Seeking to reinvent himself, Pryor relocated in the San Francisco Bay area of California, and although he continued to use drugs heavily, he also honed his influences and his comedic persona. When he reappeared on the standup comedy circuit, he shocked everyone with incredibly raw, profane, and hilarious routines. The 1970s served as a defining decade for Pryor. He spoke candidly about racial harassment and black culture, and tackled topics that had been too taboo for most comics of his time. His comedy albums from 1974 and 1975, That Nigger’s Crazy and Is It Something I Said? both went on to win Grammy Awards. In the film The Lady Sings the Blues, Pryor demonstrated the range of his talent by succeeding in a dramatic role and earning an Academy Award nomination.

Pryor also earned acclaim as a comedy writer, working for such television shows as Sanford and Son and The Flip Wilson Show. He earned an Emmy Award for his writing on Lily Tomlin’s show, Lily. Pryor was a guest on Saturday Night Live, worked with Mel Brooks on the script for Blazing Saddles, and even hosted his own short-lived TV show, The Richard Pryor Show. Pryor, and his comedy style, were significantly impacted by a 1979 visit to Kenya. Recalling the trip, he said, “The only people you saw were black. At the hotel, on television, in stores, on the street, in the newspapers, at restaurants, running the government, on advertisements. Everywhere.” It shifted his perspective and instilled in him a new sense of racial pride and identity.

Despite his positive experience in Africa, Pryor continued to feel pressured by his fame and began to freebase cocaine. In 1981, he poured rum over his entire body while freebasing, and lit himself on fire. What was billed as an accident by his manager, Pryor later admitted was a suicide attempt. He addressed his recent experiences, both positive and negative, in the acclaimed 1982 film Live on the Sunset Strip. In 1986, Pryor wrote, directed, and starred in Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling, an autobiographical film in which the lead character sets himself on fire in a drug-induced frenzy. Later that year, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He had suffered from occasional heart trouble, exacerbated by drug use since 1978, and on December 10, 2005, he died from a heart attack.

Despite his personal struggles with trauma, pressure, and drug abuse, Pryor was able to capture the raw emotion of the country in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, and to integrate both black and white experience into his legendary and explosive comedy routines. In 1998, he was the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, and in 2004, he was chosen by Comedy Central as the number one standup comedian of all time. As his last wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, recalled, he died “with a smile on his face.”


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