Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor was born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois. Pryor's alcoholic mother, Gertrude Thomas, abandoned him and his four siblings when he was 10. He spent his adolescent years living in a brothel run by his grandmother, Marie Carter.

His mother Gertrude was one of the prostitutes in Marie's brothel.

Pryor never really knew his father, LeRoy Pryor, a former boxer and hustler who had a reputation as a ladies man.

Growing up in extreme poverty, little Richard struggled to concentrate on his lessons in school. He was sexually abused at age seven, and expelled from school at age 14.

At age 18, Pryor enlisted in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960. He spent virtually most of his time in the Army prison for stabbing a white officer who angered him while stationed in West Germany.

While enlisted in the Army, Pryor discovered he had a knack for making people laugh. He performed in amateur comedy nights and open mic shows.

After returning home to Peoria, Pryor found work as a master of ceremonies at a local nightclub.

He married his girlfriend and fathered a son - the first of his six children by five different women.

After Bill Cosby rose to national fame as a comedian, Pryor realized he had the talent to achieve success as well.

He began to hone his comedy skills, and in 1963, he moved to New York City to attempt to "make it in the mainstream." There he launched his professional standup comedy career and made a name for himself in comedy nightclubs.

Pryor soon found steady work as the opening act for stars such as Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. During one of his first nights, he opened for pianist Nina Simone at New York's Village Gate.

In her autobiography, Nina remembered Pryor's severe case of opening night jitters.

"He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous," she recalled. "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."

Pryor soon caught the eye of a talent scout who booked guest appearances for him on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Merv Griffin Show. But the pivotal moment in his career came after the comedian made his first guest appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show on June 20, 1967.

As Pryor's fame grew, so did his bank account - and his growing dependency on powder cocaine.

Movie studios showed interest in Pryor, and within a year, he starred in a Sid Caesar film, Busy Body.

In September 1967, Pryor experienced what he described in his 1985 autobiography, Pryor Convictions, as "an epiphany." He said he walked onstage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, and looked out at the packed house.

In the audience were Dean Martin and other movie stars of the day. "What the fuck am I doing here!?", Pryor told the audience, and walked off the stage.

Pryor believed he was limiting himself by homogenizing his act for a certain audience. His jokes had no personal references. From that moment on, Pryor changed his standup comedy routine. He began to use profanity in his act, including the word "nigger".

During this time, his parents died. First his mother in 1967, then his father in 1968.

In 1969, Pryor moved to Berkeley, California, where he immersed himself in the Black Power movement. He moved in the same circles as Black Panther leaders Huey Newton and Ishmael Reed.

In the 1970s, Pryor wrote comedy skits for popular TV sitcoms Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show, and a 1973 Lily Tomlin special, for which he shared an Emmy Award.

He appeared in several popular films with majority Black casts, including Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams (1972), The Mack with Max Julien (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Car Wash (1976), and Which Way Is Up? (1977), as well as The Muppet Movie (1979).

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Pryor released groundbreaking comedy albums which earned him 5 Grammy Awards and 10 nominations. He won his first Grammy for his third, breakthrough comedy album, That Nigger's Crazy, in 1974.

That Nigger's Crazy was a commercial and critical success. It was eventually certified gold by the RiAA which (at the time) signified over 500,000 copies sold in the U.S.

After a contract dispute with Laff Records that nearly blocked his 3rd album from being sold, Pryor successfully negotiated his release from his contract.

Pryor went on to co-write the comedy film Blazing Saddles (1974), directed by Mel Brooks and starring actor Gene Wilder.

Pryor was cast to play the part of Bart, but the studio would not insure him, and Mel Brooks cast Black actor/comedian Cleavon Little as Bart.

By now Pryor's cocaine addiction was an open secret in Hollywood. He even wrote his cocaine habit into his standup routines and comedy recordings.

In 1979, Pryor visited Africa. Upon returning to the United States, he said he was so moved by his experience in the motherland that he would never again utter the word "nigger" in his standup comedy routines.

Despite his life-changing experiences in Africa, Pryor couldn't kick his dependency on cocaine, and in the 1980s, he began abusing an extremely addictive form of cocaine known as freebasing.

Freebasing is a process used to purify cocaine by dissolving the drug in a heated solvent such as ammonia or sodium hydroxide and removing the additives.

The refined (pure) coke powder is then smoked by burning it and inhaling the highly addictive fumes though a glass pipe. The result is an intense but short-lived high.

In 1981, Pryor was hospitalized with 3rd degree burns when he accidentally poured rum over his body and lit himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.

Pryor later admitted the accident was actually a suicide attempt.

In 1986, Pryor wrote, directed, and starred in the critically acclaimed autobiographical film Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling, in which the lead character sets himself on fire in a drug-induced frenzy.

Later that year, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a progressive neurological disease that affects mobility, movement of the limbs, sensation, memory, cognitive function, and speech.

His condition deteriorated over the years, and on December 10, 2005, Pryor died of a heart attack.

His wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, would later say he died "with a smile on his face."

In 2006, Pryor received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards.

Richard Pryor was a pioneer, award-winning writer, director, and actor who rose from extreme poverty to become one of the greatest comedians of all time.
 

Reference sources:

1. Richard Pryor biography at Black History Now
2. "Richard The Great" NY Post
3. "The N-word and Richard Pryor" The New York Times
4. "Richard Pryor List of Grammys" Grammy.com

Photo by Henry Diltz/Corbis via Getty Images

  • Judi Jupiter

    Wow

  • Phillybruh

    Great write up, he was amazing as Piano Man in Lady Sings the Blues.

  • Coy little wink

    Most comedy comes from source of pain...

  • peribabes

    a legend. thank you for this

  • ClaireHuxtable

    That was torturous to read. I can't imagine what it must have felt like to have Lived it.

  • NeverSurprised

    Thank you, Sandra, for this EXCELLENT article. For those of us who lived through this brilliant artist's incredible career, you brought back so many memories -- both fond and tragic.

    Again, I thank you.

  • Trace da Ace

    WOW Sandy!! Great write up of one of the TRUE legends of comedy!!! This man right here....I remember watching his specials and laughing so hard...he was such a amazing comedian!!!

  • Love Luv
  • Kanyade

    My childhood!

  • KcoolMuziq

    U forgot his amazing role as The Wizard of Oz in the 1978 movie "The Wiz". And his groundbreaking controversial 1977 variety show "The Richard Pryor show" that he walked away from after ONLY FOUR episodes.

  • jeniefrumdabloc™
  • hottlanta

    Love love it. He also portrayed a bit of black history with him n bille d Williams in the film bingo long n the all stars about blacks in baseball. Him n his girlfriend pam grier starred in greased lightening a movie about black race car drivers. But l love how he advised other comedians 2 do what pleases them n not b a follower of others when eddie called him n complained about bill cosby n he told eddie 2 tell bill 2 have a coke and a smile.

  • Renee26

    So many positive contributions he made were left out of this negative narrative of his life ?

  • SingleGalCrazyWorld

    I love Which way is up!!! When she plunged at him with that cleaver I felt it in my soul...LOLOLOL

  • Renee26

    He spoke about a lot of it in his stand up...sadly his way of dealing was drugs

  • Holler If Ya Hear Me

    So said that most of our legends and heros had traumatic downfalls.RIP to one of the true kings of comedy.

  • SingleGalCrazyWorld

    Omit the Logic was a good documentary on his life...one of the greats we dont have too many comedians now who are willing to buck the system...I miss the days when comedy was more liberating and nobody got offended...

  • SingleGalCrazyWorld

    Chile...

  • SingleGalCrazyWorld

    He sure was...

  • MsVAllDay

    Love Richard Pryor! This generation couldn't even handle his type of comedy. Definitely a legend!

  • Renee26

    Despite all of that negative ish Richard was a great artist. He turned his pain into laughter and he went from rags to riches. He has an extensive list of work worthy of praise, on drugs or not, he worked his azz off!
    RIP Legendary Mr Pryor

  • Mr.LeBrickJames

    Yup. Seems like most brilliant comedians have some kind of a dark side to them. Sam Kinison, John Belushi, Bill Cosby, just to name a few.

  • SpillyNillie

    Since a kid I've been silly and full of laughter. I vividly remember my parents being cracked up by this man. I remember creeping back and forth to the door because I wanted to laugh too. But all I could hear was a bunch of cursing. It was not until I was an adult that I found Mr. Prior funny.

  • jeniefrumdabloc™
  • Jordan’s Memory

    lol I love that movie!

  • HotInCleveland

    Now all I can think about when I see him is him fawking Marlon Brando and the man he met with a wig on in the club.

  • HotInCleveland

    Now all I can think about when I see him is him fawking Marlon Brando and the man he met with a wig on in the club.

  • hottlanta

    It is amazing even in his comedy skits he was forseeing a black president one day in our lifetime n it became true.

  • hottlanta

    It is amazing even in his comedy skits he was forseeing a black president one day in our lifetime n it became true.

  • Renee26

    Somebody was on one this morning

  • Renee26

    Somebody was on one this morning

  • Guest

    I knew she forgot something. I was about to google it to make sure.

  • iWasteTime

    JoJo Dancer Your Life is Calling is one of my favorite movies.

  • Yoni7

    My dad use to love him and Redd Foxx!

  • Kanyade

    the ultimate king of comedy, imho

    all the off-shoots that came after got something of their style from mr. pryor :)

  • Kanyade

    https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0257/3165/products/MVA96373.jpeg?v=1484865480
    loved this movie with him and cicely tyson and those kids. sweet film.

  • Ni Ni

    What a sad life ?. Sure, he was successful, but his lineage was very telling.

    I always get the side eye on here when i say i like blazing saddles. I had no idea richard was the cowriter. Wonder why they didnt insure him.

  • Topic Influencer

    You got freebasing as a tag for Richard? Really Sandra?!

  • Ni Ni

    Eww?

  • Ni Ni

    Goes back to look...smh ?.

  • Renee26

    Hot mess

  • Topic Influencer

    As if someone gonna use that here as a search parameter? Like...????

  • Robert lee Bennett OG

    When a black man want to talk filthy and grimey he will get promoted

  • http://sandrarose.com SandraRose

    "Wonder why they didnt insure him."

    Drugs.

  • Y me?

    Sandra generally speaking BHM is a time to highlight the achievements ang success of black people, not drug addiction and prostitution ?

  • Ni Ni

    Well, he was booked for other movies & gigs doing drugs.

  • http://sandrarose.com SandraRose

    Richard starred in damn near 1000 movies and TV shows. I listed some of them. Obviously I'm not listing them all.

  • http://sandrarose.com SandraRose

    Thanks, hun. I see some people woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning.

  • http://sandrarose.com SandraRose

    Thanks for reading, hun.

  • http://sandrarose.com SandraRose

    You're welcome, hun.

  • http://sandrarose.com SandraRose

    Probably not insured.

  • garrisonville

    this write up was great! you got everything covered. but wow, what a tragic life he had. glad he at least got to enjoy some of it as an adult.

  • SpiceGirl

    Miss this dude right here.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1lo6u-UIbo Nancy Drew-Natural & Luv’n It!

    so much brilliance and so much pain, smh
    thank you, Mr. Pryor, for helping us to laugh through our own pain.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1lo6u-UIbo Nancy Drew-Natural & Luv’n It!

    one of my all time favs!

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1lo6u-UIbo Nancy Drew-Natural & Luv’n It!

    so you've summed-up this man's talent and hard work simply as him talking "filthy and grimey"????????????? i try with you Robert, but you're way off the mark with this one, smh

  • noluvlost

    Nice post. Thank you

  • DeJeri

    My favorite was Harlem Nights.

  • RespectSelf

    I really enjoyed this post.... The good and the bad.

  • WhoYouTalkingAbout

    Good read.. I didnt know alot of this

  • Angelique Johnson
  • Robert lee Bennett OG

    Oh that was just the top layer I could have gotten much deeper yes he was entertainment....but what did he do anymore than being a minstrel? Basically any thing that try to normalize to black people that dabachury and immoral behaviors are something I will always be against...and the black peoples who let themselves be used for those causes

  • IyanlaVanzantoftheInterWebs

    RIP??
    Richard Pryor was one of the BEST to have EVER done it???

  • IyanlaVanzantoftheInterWebs

    At least Sandra didnt add good ol Quincy Jones memories of Richard Pryor up in this write up???

  • Vegas1989

    Yes....Sugar, what this kid doing in here?.....LOL.Kids bring me bad luck! Just roll the dice you snag of tooth....N....LOL....

  • Pamela

    Kevin Hart, et al, this right here is a bona fide comedian. Learn from him.

  • Vegas1989

    You made me bust out laughing

  • We Can Do This

    That Platinum Healing Glove...

  • Blue

    He was a funny dude. True comedian.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1lo6u-UIbo Nancy Drew-Natural & Luv’n It!

    well we obviously have a different take/take away, but i won't argue. i would ask that you at least look beneath the surface of what you dismiss and strictly 'entertainment' and consider his contribution to the conversation regarding race, culture, and the socioeconomic impact of being born Black and poor in America. is his story not a success story? and, if not, why not?

  • Coffee1st

    Black History=The History of Man
    Yet, they give us 28 days out of 365 to "reflect" and "acknowledge".
    Not interested.

  • 313 Still Here

    The GOAT.

  • ClaireHuxtable

    Self-medicating.

  • ClaireHuxtable

    Being funny can be hard work.

  • ClaireHuxtable

    Flip Wilson

  • Renee26

    Yup

  • Yoni7

    You know what, he never really mentioned/talked about him as much as he did the other two.

  • Yoni7

    You know what, he never really mentioned/talked about him as much as he did the other two.

  • ClaireHuxtable

    Funnnee guy with a sad early life too.

  • Solstice

    My favorite movie with Richard Pryor!! ??

  • eric5000

    I second that 313 Still Here, without question The GOAT!!!!

  • http://www.id820534.sexylfx.website Readytochokemothernatureout

    I think I had zero business watching which way is up as a kid but that's one of my all time favorite movies ???

  • KcoolMuziq

    Cicely(whom I worked with on H.T.G.A.W.M) I was so intimidated by her presence she was as sweet & fiery as can be.

  • KcoolMuziq

    NONE of us had ZERO business as a kid listening to those comedy albums.

  • Applebootay

    G.O.A.T.

  • leapyearpisces

    If teyana taylor does not look like that woman!!!!!!

  • Li-Wright

    Brilliant man, but fuc**ed up. You gotta read his autobiography. I couldn't get through it.

  • gail jones

    Why not?

  • gail jones

    Kimberly Elise

  • yvette46

    Rich, was a sellout..

  • Mister Fantastic

    Richard's mom was a diagnosed Paranoid Schizophrenic. He later struggled with mental illness, attempting to use cocaine to self medicate.

    Early in his career, he wore a "conk" and said he was Puerto Rican to MC the shows in white clubs. As he became more accepted for his talents, he "became" black...

  • Kanyade

    Awesome that you got to work with her. She's royalty.

  • MSGREENMINUSTHEENVY

    Do tell!