Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor (December 1, 1940 – December 10, 2005) was an American stand-up comedian, social critic, and actor. He is currently listed at Number 1 on Comedy Central’s list of all-time greatest stand-up comedians.
Pryor was known for uncompromising examinations of racism and topical contemporary issues, which employed colorful vulgarities and profanity, as well as racial epithets.
He reached a broad audience with his trenchant observations and storytelling style. He is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time: Jerry Seinfeld called Pryor “The Picasso of our profession”, and Bob Newhart has called Pryor “the seminal comedian of the last 50 years”.
This legacy can be attributed, in part, to the unusual degree of intimacy Pryor brought to bear on his comedy. As Bill Cosby reportedly once said, “Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it.”
Pryor’s body of work includes the concert movies and recordings: Richard Pryor: Live & Smokin’ (1971), That Nigger’s Crazy (1974), …Is It Something I Said? (1975), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), and Richard Pryor: Here and Now (1983).
He also starred in numerous films as an actor, such as Superman III (1983), but was usually in comedies such as Silver Streak (1976), and occasionally in dramatic roles, such as Paul Schrader’s film Blue Collar (1978).
He collaborated on many projects with actor Gene Wilder. Another frequent collaborator was actor/comedian/writer Paul Mooney.
Pryor won an Emmy Award (1973) and five Grammy Awards (1974, 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1982). In 1974, he also won two American Academy of Humor awards and the Writers Guild of America Award. The first ever Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was presented to him in 1998.
Born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor grew up in his grandmother’s brothel, where his mother, Gertrude L. (Thomas), practiced prostitution. His father, LeRoy “Buck Carter” Pryor (June 7, 1915 – September 27, 1968), was a former boxer and hustler.
After his alcoholic mother abandoned him when he was 10, Pryor was raised primarily by his grandmother Marie Carter, a tall, violent woman who would beat him for any of his eccentricities.
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.
His first professional performance was playing drums at a night club. Pryor served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, but spent virtually the entire stint in an army prison.
According to a 1999 profile about Pryor in The New Yorker, Pryor was incarcerated for an incident that occurred while stationed in Germany.
Angered that a white soldier was overly amused at the racially charged sections of Douglas Sirk’s movie Imitation of Life (1959), Pryor and some other black soldiers beat and stabbed him, though not fatally.
During this time, Pryor’s girlfriend gave birth to a girl named Renee. In 1960, he married Patricia Price, and they had one child together, Richard Jr. They divorced in 1961.
In 1963, 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. Simone recalls Pryor’s bout of performance anxiety:
He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn’t bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time.
Inspired by Bill Cosby, 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 and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. His popularity led to success as a comic in Las Vegas.
The first five tracks on the 2005 compilation CD Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966–1974), recorded in 1966 and 1967, capture Pryor in this period.
In September 1967, Pryor had what he described in his autobiography Pryor Convictions (1995) as an “epiphany”. He walked onto the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas (with Dean Martin in the audience), looked at the sold-out crowd, exclaimed over the microphone “What the fuck am I doing here!?”, and walked off the stage.
Afterward, Pryor began working profanity into his act, including the word nigger. His first comedy recording, the eponymous 1968 debut release on the Dove/Reprise label, captures this particular period, tracking the evolution of Pryor’s routine. Around this time, his parents died—his mother in 1967 and his father in 1968.
In 1967, his daughter Elizabeth Ann was born to his girlfriend Maxine Anderson. Later that year, he married Shelley Bonis. In 1969, his daughter Rain Pryor was born. Pryor and Bonis divorced later that year.
Pryor was a Freemason in a lodge in Peoria, Illinois.
In November 1977, after many years of heavy smoking and drinking, Pryor suffered a mild heart attack. He soon recovered and resumed performing again by January following year.
He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. In 1990, Pryor suffered a second and more severe heart attack and underwent triple heart bypass surgery.
On December 10, 2005, Pryor suffered a heart attack in Los Angeles. He was taken to a local hospital after his wife’s attempts to resuscitate him failed. He was pronounced dead at 7:58 a.m. PST. He was 65 years old. His widow Jennifer was quoted as saying, “At the end, there was a smile on his face.”
He was cremated, and his ashes were given to his family.