Known for his outrageous stand-up and self-deprecating humor, Richard Pryor was a self-made man, raised in the slums. His traumatic childhood experiences built him into the profane comic he was. He used his experiences as topics for his work, joking about his child abuse and drugs, he wasn’t your average comedian. He became successful in many different avenues and won numerous awards in his lifetime.
Richard once said, “What I’m saying might be profane, but it’s also profound.”
He was born December 1st 1940. His full-given name was Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III. He has since been known as one of the more influential comedians in the history of comedy. He was edgy and was not meant for the weak of heart. His performances and acting covered a wide variety of uncomfortable topics that were mostly considered voodoo for the time. He opened up conversations about the black culture that hadn’t been discussed openly in the past.
He was one of four children, and was raised by his grandmother, in what can only be described as a brothel. He had an incredibly difficult childhood, one that most can’t even comprehend. At age 6 he was raped by a teenage neighbor and then was molested by a Catholic priest during catechism. He was exposed to his mother’s prostitution on a regular basis and suffered other forms of abuse. As an escape, young Richard would attend the movies, dreaming of one day becoming a star. Pryor’s first introduction to the stage was at age 12. He was cast in a local production of Rumplestiltskin. The supervisor at the public recreational facility was so impressed by his comic ability she arranged numerous talent shows for his performances.
He was expelled from school at age 14 for some petty offense, and to fill his time he worked as a janitor at the local strip club. As he grew up he worked at a number of different ‘careers’ including a drummer, meat packer, truck driver and billiard hall attendant. He had several run-ins with the country’s penal system and experiences much racism at their hands.
Richard served in the army from the years 1958-1960, he had a dishonorable discharge after an altercation with another officer. But while serving, he did perform in many amateur shows. He was offered his first gig in his hometown, where he played piano and sang. He was not warmly received and then realized that he was much more appreciated as a stand-up comedian. He began working in professional comic clubs, and once he gained the confidence he needed he traveled to New York in 1963. His growing popularity gained him recognition for his work.
By 1966, Pryor appeared on television on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Jonny Carson Show and Merv Griffin Show. Las Vegas began to find interest in Richard Pryor, so he decided to give it a shot. He began in Las Vegas as an opening show, but after time he found it difficult to conform to the more conservative Vegas format and ended up walking off the stage in 1969. He then moved to California and spent a couple of years in Berkeley before deciding to give Hollywood a try.
He starred in the films The Busy Body and Wild in the Streets. He then released his first album. He continued to work in the film industry playing in the movie Lady Sings the Blues, which earned him notice. All in all he played in a total of 50 movies by 1980.
In 1980 Richard Pryor was struggling with drugs and many other demons. In a fit of smoking crack cocaine he lit himself on fire. His colleagues tried to help but he jumped out the window and walked along the streets as a walking torch. He collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where most thought he would die. But instead he spent 6 weeks recovering. After many skin grafts, painful scrubs, plastic surgeries and physical therapy he was released to return home.
In 1983 Richard Pryor was paid $4 million for his role as the accomplice to the villain in Superman III. This was unprecedented for a black actor at the time. But being a television star was not enough for him and he began writing shows as well. He wrote, Sanford and Son and The Flip Wilson Show and two Lily Tomlin specials which earned him both an Emmy and a Writers Guild Award. He also tried his hand at authorship, writing his own autobiography entitled Pryor Convictions: and Other Life Sentences. His book was published by Pantheon Books in 1995.
Although Richard Pryor had accomplished much in his life, his comedy is what he is adored for. His subject-matter often revolved around black life on the streets, drugs, sex and tragedies from his own life. Some including, cocaine addiction, difficult and ruined marriages, killing his car, two heart attacks, and the incredibly horrendous incident of setting himself on fire
Pryor was an incredible performer, and was recognized as such. Academy Award-winner Louis Gosset Jr. said about Pryor, “[He was] the single most reason for us making it in this business. He made it possible for us [black people] to be in this business on equal terms.”
In 1986, on the set for the movie Critical Condition, Pryor found himself unable to get out of his chair. His legs were seemingly paralyzed. He became frantic, whacking and shaking his legs, but nothing changed. Yet, a few moments later, he was able to move, and finished his scene. Pryor stayed in the spot light and rumors began to run that he had AIDS. He quickly was tested and dispelled these rumors. He soon began to have issues with sight, balance and movement. His sight would seemingly come and go without warning or reason.
Later that year Pryor was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Richard continued to perform, even with MS. Richard described his symptoms as: “loss of co-ordination and muscle strength to mood shifts and depression — with some bladder loss, spasms and … paralysis thrown in for good measure.” In 1992 he was still performing live at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood cracking jokes about his afflictions and his wheelchair.
However, his MS did prevent him from performing in his last few years, his MS was exacerbated by his years of drug and alcohol abuse and he passed away on December 10th 2005. He died in his Encino home which he shared with his two rescue dogs. He will always be held up as a cultural icon and his influence changed peoples’ perspectives on the world around them. He had incredible success throughout his life and worked hard to accomplish all that he did.