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Pryor, Richard

Richard Pryor

1940–2005

Comedian, actor, writer

In the 1970s and 1980s Richard Pryor was one of America's top comedians, an actor, writer, and stand-up artist whose irreverent albums sold in the millions. Pryor mined both personal and social tragedy for his comic material and peppered his appearances with outrageous language and adult humor. Even at the peak of his popularity, however, he suffered the dire consequences of drug and alcohol abuse—a heart attack, a suicide attempt, and the onset of multiple sclerosis. His disease made Pryor a recluse, and from the early 1990s onward he rarely left his California mansion and saw only a small cadre of friends. Pryor's last gift to his adoring fans was a memoir that offered his trademark blend of tragedy and comedy. Pryor passed away in 2005.

One of Pryor's ex-wives, Jennifer Lee, once told Premiere magazine: "Richard's so isolated from the human race. When you're with him now, you feel a kind of solitude you don't even feel when you're by yourself." Pryor's is indeed the tragic story of a talented personality who took a path of self-destruction, a comic who could draw laughs from his own misfortunes but who was powerless to change his habits until the damage had been done. Premiere correspondent David Handelman theorized: "Like many celebrities, Pryor turned to drugs in part out of insecurity about his fame. But he had the added guilt trip of being perhaps the most successful black man in a country of disenfranchised blacks."

Pryor was not the first African-American comedian to succeed as a stand-up comic. He followed in the footsteps of Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, among others. He became unique—and a pioneer in his own right—when he created a bold new comedy of character, turning African-American life into humorous performance art without softening either the message or its delivery. He could glide effortlessly from portraying an elderly wino to mimicking a cheetah poised to bag a gazelle. With an astounding repertoire of accents and body lingo, Pryor often played a predator one moment and a victim the next. His was a comedy forged from life's tragic moments.

Pryor's audience included a number of comics who have since risen to fame. "I just dreamed about being like Richard Pryor," Keenen Ivory Wayans told Premiere. "Pryor started it all. He's Yoda. If Pryor had not come along, there would not be an Eddie Murphy or a Keenen Ivory Wayans or a Damon Wayans or an Arsenio Hall—or even a [white comedian like] Sam Kinison, for that matter. He made the blueprint for the progressive thinking of black comedians, unlocked that irreverent style."

Bill Cosby told People magazine: "For Richard, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it." Given Pryor's background, it is not surprising that he entwined comedy and tragedy so brilliantly. He was born in Peoria, Illinois, in December 1940, to an unwed mother. He had always claimed that he was raised in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute. His parents, LeRoy and Gertrude Pryor, married when he was three, but the union did not last. Ultimately he chose to live with his grandmother, who was not shy about administering beatings.

At the height of his fame, Pryor declared that he had no bitterness about his unconventional upbringing. He revealed to People that his mother "wasn't very strong, but she tried. At least she didn't flush me down the toilet, like some." He added: "The biggest moment of my life was when my grandmother was with me on the Mike Douglas Show." On the other hand, Pryor's former bodyguard and spiritual adviser Rashon Khan told Premiere that Pryor was sometimes sexually abused in his childhood environment and was "exposed to a lot of crazy stuff." Khan suggested that these childhood traumas helped set the stage for Pryor's drug abuse even before he became established in his career. "The problem that Richard was having with Richard was what happened when he was a kid," Khan said. "It created a void so big, it didn't matter how famous he got."

In school, Pryor was often in trouble with the authorities. His one positive experience came when he was eleven. One of his teachers, Juliette Whittaker, cast him in a community theater performance and then let him entertain his classmates with his antics. Years later, Pryor gave Whittaker the Emmy Award he earned writing comedy for a Lily Tomlin special.

Pryor was expelled from high school after striking a teacher. He never returned. Instead, he sought work in a packing house and then, in 1958, joined the army. He spent his two-year hitch in West Germany, once again clashing with his superiors. Pryor returned home to Peoria in 1960, married the first of his five wives, and fathered his second child, Richard Pryor, Jr. His first child, daughter Renee, was born three years earlier.

The owner of a popular African-American nightclub in Peoria gave Pryor his first professional opportunity. By the early 1960s the comedian was performing on a circuit that included East St. Louis, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh. Then, in 1963, Pryor decided to move to New York City. He settled briefly in Greenwich Village, where he performed an act with strong similarities to Bill Cosby's. Pryor told People: "I'll never forget going up to Harlem and seeing all those black people. Jesus, just knowing there were that many of us made me feel better."

Pryor broke into television in New York City in 1964 when he appeared on a series called On Broadway Tonight. Other offers followed, including a couple from The Ed Sullivan Show and the Merv Griffin Show. Pryor pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, where he supported himself with bit parts in movies such as The Green Berets, starring John Wayne, and Wild in the Streets, a teen-exploitation film. He also continued to play to live audiences, especially in Las Vegas showrooms. "In his early days there was a lot of Bill Cosby in Richard's act," Cosby himself noted in People. "Then one evening I was in the audience when Richard took on a whole new persona—his own, in front of me and everyone else. Richard killed the Bill Cosby in his act, made people hate it. Then he worked on them, doing pure Richard Pryor, and it was the most astonishing metamorphosis I have ever seen. He was magnificent."

By the late 1960s Pryor was already indulging in one hundred dollars worth of cocaine a day. While his new, more personal act found followers, it also alienated the management in Las Vegas. Pryor clashed with landlords and hotel clerks, was audited by the Internal Revenue Service for nonpayment of taxes between 1967 and 1970, and was sued for battery by one of his wives. He disappeared into the counterculture community in Berkeley, California, and did not work for several years. Then he resurfaced in 1972 with a new stand-up act and a supporting role in the film Lady Sings the Blues, a drama for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.

Pryor also contributed his writing talents to other comics. He wrote bits for The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son and helped Mel Brooks to write the classic Western film comedy Blazing Saddles. In 1973 he earned an Emmy Award for the special Lily, starring Lily Tomlin. That provocative show also proved a vehicle for Pryor, when he teamed with Tomlin for a skit about a raggedy black wino and a prim, "tasteful lady."

At a Glance …

Born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor, on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, IL; died of a heart attack on December 10, 2005, in Northridge, CA; son of LeRoy and Gertrude (Thomas) Pryor; married and divorced five times; seven children. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1958–60.

Career: Comedian, actor, and writer.

Selected Awards: Emmy Award, 1973, for Lily; Writers Guild Award and American Academy of Humor Award, both 1974, for Blazing Saddles; five Grammy awards for best comedy albums; Emmy Award nomination and Image Award nomination for Chicago Hope, 1996; Hall of Fame Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1996; recipient of the first Mark Twain Prize, 1998; MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000.

In 1976, Pryor wrote and starred in Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings. He made a bigger splash, however, in the film Silver Streak, a mixture of comedy and suspense that centers on a murderous train ride. Even though he had only a supporting role in this 1976 release starring Gene Wilder, Pryor earned the bulk of the critics' attention. The film grossed $30 million at the box office, and it opened new venues for the versatile Pryor.

Pryor was at the height of his form as a live comedian by the late 1970s. He had earned Grammy Awards for the 1974 album That Nigger's Crazy and the 1976 work Bicentennial Nigger. Both of the albums went platinum in sales. In all, Pryor earned five Grammy Awards for best comedy album, but the 1979 movie Richard Pryor Live in Concert remains his "indisputable moment of glory," to quote Handelman. In the New York Times Magazine, James McPherson claimed that Pryor was creating a whole new style in American comedy, a style born more of the theater than of traditional humor. The characters, McPherson wrote, "are winos, junkies, whores, street fighters, blue-collar drunks, pool hustlers—all the failures who are an embarrassment to the black middle class and stereotypes in the minds of most whites. The black middle class fears the glorification of those images and most whites fear them in general. Pryor talks like them; he imitates their styles…. He enters into his people and allows whatever is comic in them, whatever is human, to evolve out of what they say and how they look into a total scene. It is part of Richard Pryor's genius that, through the selective use of facial expressions, gestures,… speech and movements, he can create a scene that is comic and at the same time recognizable as profoundly human."

Some of those "profoundly human" comedy scenes were based on unhappy events in Pryor's life. He had a serious heart attack in 1978 and underwent yet another divorce after a violent episode on New Year's Eve that culminated in his riddling his wife's car with bullets. These two grave incidents are given the full comic treatment in Richard Pryor Live in Concert. At a point in the act, Pryor "becomes" his heart itself during the attack, with asides from other parts of his body. He also "becomes" his ex-wife's car under attack.

The theme would be recreated two years later after an even more dangerous event. By 1980 Pryor was freebasing cocaine, using volatile ether to help light the drug for smoking. No one is clear about exactly what happened on June 9, 1980. At first, Pryor claimed the fire was started during the freebasing process. Later, he stated that he poured rum on himself and set himself on fire. At any rate, he nearly burned himself to death, suffering severe injuries to half his body. Early reports told of his untimely death, but he survived and underwent an anguishing rehabilitation.

The healing process did not speak to his addiction, however. He took painkillers in the hospital and returned to freebasing when he was released. Nevertheless, he began to see the fatal consequences of drug use, and this attitude is evident in his final concert movie, Live on Sunset Strip. The film contains the well-known Pryor routine about his accident, his drug use, and his stay in the hospital. New York magazine contributor David Denby called Live on Sunset Strip "a perfect entertainment." The critic added: "Richard Pryor works directly with the life around him, and he digs deeper into fear and lust and anger and pain than many of the novelists and playwrights now taken seriously. Like any great actor, he dramatizes emotion with his whole body, but his mind is so quick and his moods so volatile, he's light-years ahead of any actor delivering a text. Working from deep inside his own experience and understanding of what a human being is and is capable of, he can shake you to your roots."

Live on Sunset Strip was released in 1982. The following year Pryor made concerted efforts to clear his system of drugs and alcohol. He joined a rehabilitation program and worked with other addicts to overcome his problems. He also tackled a project that was daring indeed—he co-wrote, directed, and starred in the 1985 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. A thinly veiled autobiography, Jo Jo Dancer stars Pryor as a comedian who relives his life immediately following a near fatal accident. Critics praised the intentions of the movie—especially the fact that Pryor hired African-American workers for every aspect of the production—but the film was not a hit. Detroit Free Press critic Catherine Rambeau, for instance, cited the work for its "honorable premise," but faulted it for a "lack of focus."

Los Angeles Times reviewer Peter Rainer speculated that, as far as movies in general are concerned, Pryor "seems to have taken a wrong turn." A number of Pryor's movies did brisk business at the box office, but in Rainer's words, they led Pryor "into creative oblivion." Films such as The Toy, Brewster's Millions, Stir Crazy, and Bustin' Loose show a Pryor who "is resignedly bland…. Anything malign or threatening has been bleached out," to quote Rainer. Pryor's ex-wife Jennifer Lee told Premiere: "Don't bother looking for a pattern to Richard's movies…. He's lazy, he took the money, he doesn't care."

Others had greater respect for Pryor, however. Eddie Murphy asked Pryor to co-star in the 1989 movie Harlem Nights, and he held a huge comedy concert in Pryor's honor. Commenting in Premiere on the restrictive social atmosphere that existed during Pryor's rise to fame, comedienne Lily Tomlin expressed astonishment over his ability to achieve anything at all. "Richard lost jobs, was blackballed and everything else," Tomlin said, "because people thought he was too hard to deal with or incorrigible or out of control. Now people's careers are built on drug use or rehab. And I can't imagine anything happening to Eddie Murphy like what's happened to Richard. Richard paid the price for using language on the stage,… and Eddie has been celebrated for it. And I don't think Eddie would ever be conflicted the way Richard was about playing [Las] Vegas, playing white clubs with white managers and taking white money. It was a different consciousness."

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that attacks the central nervous system. The disease and his continuing heart trouble severely limited Pryor's ability to communicate and confined him to a wheelchair, and he became increasingly isolated at his mansion in the hills of California. His heart ailments finally required triple bypass surgery. Pryor's physical limitations and frail, gaunt appearance were a great source of frustration for him. One of Pryor's closest friends, Paul Mooney, told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "He [Pryor] has always been the life of the party. He does not like people seeing him like this, and he does not like being like this." Despite these limitations, Pryor worked with author Todd Gold to release a memoir, Pryor Convictions, that recounted both the trials and the joys of his eventful life. Though readers caught traces of Pryor's brand of humor, his print comedy failed to stand up to the incendiary nature of his live performances.

In 1998, Pryor received the first Mark Twain Prize in celebration of American humor in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Over 2,000 guests, including Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Morgan Freeman, Richard Belzer, Tim Allen, and Damon Wayans, attended the ceremony. The ceremony featured video clips of some of Pryor's most famous comedic moments interspersed with comments and tributes from comedians and actors who were influenced by Pryor. Although he was unable to rise from his chair, Pryor graciously accepted the award with a whispered "Thank you." In a written statement that was quoted in Jet, Pryor wrote: "I feel great about accepting this prize. It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man—now that's funny. Seriously, though, 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!"

In the years that followed, Pryor was universally acclaimed for his contributions to American humor. Handelman noted: "Even though his best work had nothing to do with one-liners, Pryor [was] unquestionably still the most important and influential stand-up comedian of the past 25 years. Using raw street language, he [turned] black American life into breathtaking one-man theater, his rubbery face, multioctave voice, and lithe body physicalizing every situation." As Damon Wayans told Jet, "If [a comedian] hasn't copied from Richard Pryor, then you're probably not funny. Like Michael Jordan has defined the game of basketball, Richard Pryor has defined stand up comedy." Pryor finally succumbed to a heart attack on December 10, 2005, at his home in Northridge, California.

Selected works

Books

(With Todd Gold) Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. Pantheon, 1995.

Films

Lady Sings the Blues, 1972.
Uptown Saturday Night, 1974.
Silver Streak, 1976.
Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, 1976.
Blue Collar, 1978.
The Wiz, 1978.
Richard Pryor Live in Concert, 1979.
Stir Crazy, 1980.
Bustin' Loose, 1981.
Live on Sunset Strip, 1982.
Some Kind of Hero, 1982.
The Toy, 1982.
Superman III, 1983.
Brewster's Millions, 1985.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1985.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 1989.
Harlem Nights, 1989.
Another You, 1991.
Lost Highway, 1997.

Recordings

That Nigger's Crazy, Reprise, 1974.
Bicentennial Nigger, Warner Bros., 1976.
Greatest Hits, Warner Bros., 1977.
Wanted: Live in Concert, Warner Bros., 1979.
Live on Sunset Strip, Warner Bros., 1982.
Who Me? I'm Not Him, Polygram, 1994.
The Wizard of Comedy, Loose Cannon, 1995.
And It's Deep, Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968–1992), Rhino, 2000.
Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966–1974), Rhino, 2005.

Screenplays

Blazing Saddles, 1974.
Car Wash, 1976.
Silver Streak, 1976.
Blue Collar, 1978.
Stir Crazy, 1980.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1986.

Television

The Richard Pryor Show, 1977.

Guest and host of numerous television shows, including The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.

Sources

Books

Haskins, James, A Man and His Madness, Beaufort Books, 1984.

Rovin, Jeff, Richard Pryor: Black and Blue, Bantam, 1984.

Williams, John A., and Dennis A. Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.

Periodicals

Commonweal, May 7, 1982.

Detroit Free Press, May 2, 1986.

Ebony, July 1986; February 1, 2006.

Entertainment Weekly, October 11, 1991; December 23, 2005.

Film Comment, July-August 1982.

Jet, November 9, 1998; December 26, 2005.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 15, 1999.

Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1986; November 24, 1989.

New York, March 29, 1982.

New York Times, January 9, 1977; May 2, 1986; May 18, 1986.

New York Times Magazine, April 27, 1975.

People, March 13, 1978; December 26, 2005.

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 26, 1992.

Premiere, June 1991; January 1992.

Progressive, June 1982.

Time, December 19, 2005.

On-line

Richard Pryor, www.richardpryor.com (March 23, 2006).

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Pryor, Richard 1940–

Richard Pryor 1940

Comedian, actor, writer

At a Glance

Early Career Moves

Fame Brought Its Own Troubles

Lonely at the Top

A Second Chance

Fans Remained Loyal

Selected discography

Sources

In the 1970s and 1980s Richard Pryor was one of Americas top comedians, an actor, writer, and stand-up artist whose irreverent albums sold in the millions. Pryor mined both personal and social tragedy for his comic material and peppered his appearances with outrageous language and adult humor. Even at the peak of his popularity, however, he suffered the dire consequences of drug and alcohol abusea heart attack, a suicide attempt, and the onset of multiple sclerosis. Since the early 1990s, he has lived a reclusive life in his Bel Air home, reportedly almost unable to walk and rarely seeing any but a small cadre of friends.

One of Pryors ex-wives, Jennifer Lee, told Premiere magazine: Richards so isolated from the human race. When youre with him now, you feel a kind of solitude you dont even feel when youre by yourself. Pryors is indeed the tragic story of a talented personality who took a path of self-destruction, a comic who could draw laughs from his own misfortunes but who was powerless to change his habits until the damage had been done. Premiere correspondent David Handelman theorized: Like many celebrities, Pryor turned to drugs in part out of insecurity about his fame. But he had the added guilt trip of being perhaps the most successful black man in a country of disenfranchised blacks.

Pryor was not the first black comedian to succeed as a stand-up comic. He followed in the footsteps of Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, among others. He became uniqueand a pioneer in his own rightwhen he created a bold new comedy of character, turning black American life into humorous performance art without softening either the message or its delivery. He could glide effortlessly from portraying an elderly wino to mimicking a cheetah poised to bag a gazelle. With an astounding repertoire of accents and body lingo, Pryor often played a predator one moment and a victim the next. His was a comedy forged from lifes tragic moments.

Pryors audience included a number of comics who have since risen to fame. I just dreamed about being like Richard Pryor, Keenen Ivory Wayans told Premiere. Pryor started it all. Hes Yoda. If Pryor had not come along, there would not be an Eddie Murphy or a Keenen Ivory Wayans or a Damon Wayans or an Arsenio Hallor even a [white comedian like] Sam Kinison, for that matter.

At a Glance

Born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor, December 1, 1940, in Peoria, IL; son of LeRoy and Gertrude (Thomas) Pryor; married and divorced five times; children: Renee, Richard, Jr., Rain, Elizabeth. Military service: U.S. Army, 1958-60.

Comedian, actor, and writer. Has appeared in over forty films, including Lady Sings the Blues, 1972; Silver Streak, 1976; Blue Collar, 1978; Richard Pryor Live in Concert, 1979; Stir Crazy, 1980; Live on Sunset Strip, 1982; Some Kind of Hero, 1982; The Toy, 1982; Brewsters Millions, 1985; JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1985; See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 1989; Harlem Nights, 1989; and Another You, 1990. Guest and host of numerous television shows, including The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Star of The Richard Pryor Show, 1977. Author or co-author of screenplays, including Blazing Saddles, 1974; Car Wash, 1976; Silver Streak, 1976; Blue Collar, 1978; Stir Crazy, 1980; and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1985.

Selected awards: Emmy Award, 1973, for Lily; Writers Guild Award and American Academy of Humor Award, both 1974, for Blazing Saddles; five Grammy awards for best comedy albums; four certified gold comedy albums; one platinum album.

Addresses: c/o Tri-Star Pictures, 3400 Riverside Dr., Burbank, CA 91505.

He made the blueprint for the progressive thinking of black comedians, unlocked that irreverent style.

Bill Cosby told People magazine: For Richard, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it. Given Pryors background, it is not surprising that he entwined comedy and tragedy so brilliantly. He was born in Peoria, Illinois, in December, 1940, to an unwed mother. He has always claimed that he was raised in his grandmothers brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute. His parents, LeRoy and Gertrude Pryor, married when he was three, but the union did not last. Ultimately he chose to live with his grandmother, who was not shy about administering beatings.

At the height of his fame, Pryor declared that he had no bitterness about his unconventional upbringing. He revealed to People that his mother wasnt very strong, but she tried. At least she didnt flush me down the toilet, like some. He added: The biggest moment of my life was when my grandmother was with me on the Mike Douglas Show. On the other hand, Pryors former bodyguard and spiritual adviser Rashon Khan told Premiere that Pryor was sometimes sexually abused in his childhood environment and was often exposed to a lot of crazy stuff. Khan suggested that these childhood traumas helped set the stage for Pryors drug abuse even before he became established in his career. The problem that Richard was having with Richard was what happened when he was a kid, Khan said. It created a void so big, it didnt matter how famous he got.

In school Pryor was often in trouble with the authorities. His one positive experience came when he was eleven. One of his teachers, Juliette Whittaker, cast him in a community theater performance and then let him entertain his classmates with his antics. Years later, Pryor gave Whittaker the Emmy Award he earned writing comedy for a Lily Tomlin special.

Pryor was expelled from high school after striking a teacher. He never returned. Instead he sought work in a packing house and then, in 1958, joined the army. He spent his two-year hitch in West Germany, once again clashing with his superiors. Pryor returned home to Peoria in 1960, married the first of his five wives, and fathered his second child, Richard Pryor, Jr. His first child, daughter Renee, was born three years earlier.

Early Career Moves

The owner of a popular black nightclub in Peoria gave Pryor his first professional opportunity. By the early 1960s the comedian was performing on a circuit that included East St. Louis, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh. Then, in 1963, Pryor decided to move to New York City. He settled briefly in Greenwich Village, where he performed an act with strong similarities to Bill Cosbys. Pryor told People: Ill never forget going up to Harlem and seeing all those black people. Jesus, just knowing there were that many of us made me feel better.

Pryor broke into television in New York City in 1964 when he appeared on a series called On Broadway Tonight. Other offers followed, including a couple from The Ed Sullivan Show and the Merv Griffin Show. Pryor pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, where he supported himself with bit parts in movies such as The Green Berets, starring John Wayne, and Wild in the Streets, a teen-exploitation film. He also continued to play to live audiences, especially in Las Vegas showrooms. In his early days there was a lot of Bill Cosby in Richards act, Cosby himself noted in People. Then one evening I was in the audience when Richard took on a whole new personahis own, in front of me and everyone else. Richard killed the Bill Cosby in his act, made people hate it. Then he worked on them, doing pure Richard Pryor, and it was the most astonishing metamorphosis I have ever seen. He was magnificent.

Fame Brought Its Own Troubles

By the late 1960s Pryor was already indulging in one hundred dollars worth of cocaine a day. While his new, more personal act found followers, it also alienated the management in Las Vegas. Pryor clashed with landlords and hotel clerks, was audited by the Internal Revenue Service for nonpayment of taxes between 1967 and 1970, and was sued for battery by one of his wives. He disappeared into the counterculture community in Berkeley, California, and did not work for several years. Then he resurfaced in 1972 with a new stand-up act and a supporting role in the film Lady Sings the Blues, a drama for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.

Pryor also contributed his writing talents to other comics. He wrote bits for The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son and helped Mel Brooks to write the classic Western film comedy Blazing Saddles. In 1973 he earned an Emmy Award for the special Lily, starring Lily Tomlin. That provocative show also proved a vehicle for Pryor, when he teamed with Tomlin for a skit about a raggedy black wino and a prim, tasteful lady.

In 1976 Pryor wrote and starred in Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings. He made a bigger splash, however, in the film Silver Streak, a mixture of comedy and suspense that centers on a murderous train ride. Even though he had only a supporting role in this 1976 release starring Gene Wilder, Pryor earned the bulk of the critics attention. The film grossed $30 million at the box office, and it opened new venues for the versatile Pryor.

Lonely at the Top

Pryor was at the height of his form as a live comedian by the late 1980s. He had earned Grammy Awards for the 1974 album That Niggers Crazy and the 1976 work Bicentennial Nigger. Both of the albums went platinum in sales. In all, Pryor earned five Grammy Awards for best comedy album, but the 1979 movie Richard Pryor Live in Concert remains his indisputable moment of glory, to quote Handelman. In the New York Times Magazine, James McPherson claimed that Pryor was creating a whole new style in American comedy, a style born more of the theater than of traditional humor. The characters, McPherson wrote, are winos, junkies, whores, street fighters, blue-collar drunks, pool hustlersall the failures who are an embarrassment to the black middle class and stereotypes in the minds of most whites. The black middle class fears the glorification of those images and most whites fear them in general. Pryor talks like them; he imitates their styles. He enters into his people and allows whatever is comic in them, whatever is human, to evolve out of what they say and how they look into a total scene. It is part of Richard Pryors genius that, through the selective use of facial expressions, gestures,speech and movements, he can create a scene that is comic and at the same time recognizable as profoundly human.

Some of those profoundly human comedy scenes were based on unhappy events in Pryors life. He had a serious heart attack in 1978 and underwent yet another divorce after a violent episode on New Years Eve that culminated in his riddling his wifes car with bullets. These two grave incidents are given the full comic treatment in Richard Pryor Live in Concert. At a point in the act, Pryor becomes his heart itself during the attack, with asides from other parts of his body. He also becomes his ex-wifes car under attack.

The theme would be recreated two years later after an even more dangerous event. By 1980 Pryor was freebasing cocaine, using volatile ether to help light the drug for smoking. No one is clear about exactly what happened on June 9, 1980. At first Pryor claimed the fire was started during the freebasing process. Later he stated that he poured rum on himself and set himself on fire. At any rate, he nearly burned himself to death, suffering severe injuries to half his body. Early reports told of his untimely death, but he survived and underwent an anguishing rehabilitation.

The healing process did not speak to his addiction, however. He took painkillers in the hospital and returned to freebasing when he was released. Nevertheless, he began to see the fatal consequences of drug use, and this attitude is evident in his final concert movie, Live on Sunset Strip. The film contains the well-known Pryor routine about his accident, his drug use, and his stay in the hospital. New York magazine contributor David Denby called Live on Sunset Strip a perfect entertainment. The critic added: Richard Pryor works directly with the life around him, and he digs deeper into fear and lust and anger and pain than many of the novelists and playwrights now taken seriously. Like any great actor, he dramatizes emotion with his whole body, but his mind is so quick and his moods so volatile, hes light-years ahead of any actor delivering a text. Working from deep inside his own experience and understanding of what a human being is and is capable of, he can shake you to your roots.

A Second Chance

Live on Sunset Strip was released in 1982. The following year Pryor made concerted efforts to clear his system of drugs and alcohol. He joined a rehabilitation program and worked with other addicts to overcome his problems. He also tackled a project that was daring indeedhe co-wrote, directed, and starred in the 1985 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. A thinly veiled autobiography, Jo Jo Dancer stars Pryor as a comedian who relives his life immediately following a near fatal accident. Critics praised the intentions of the movieespecially the fact that Pryor hired black workers for every aspect of the productionbut the film was not a hit. Detroit Free Press critic Catherine Rambeau, for instance, cited the work for its honorable premise, but faulted it for a lack of focus.

Los Angeles Times reviewer Peter Rainer speculated that, as far as movies in general are concerned, Pryor seems to have taken a wrong turn. A number of Pryors movies did brisk business at the box office, but in Rainers words, they led Pryor into creative oblivion. Films such as The Toy, Brewsters Millions, Stir Crazy, and Bustin Loose show a Pryor who is resignedly bland. Anything malign or threatening has been bleached out, to quote Rainer. Pryors ex-wife Jennifer Lee told Premiere: Dont bother looking for a pattern to Richards movies. Hes lazy, he took the money, he doesnt care.

Fans Remained Loyal

Others held greater respect for Pryor, however. Eddie Murphy asked Pryor to co-star in the 1989 movie Harlem Nights and more recently organized a huge comedy concert in Pryors honor. Commenting in Premiere on the restrictive social atmosphere that existed during Pryors rise to fame, comedienne Lily Tomlin expressed astonishment over his ability to achieve anything at all. Richard lost jobs, was blackballed and everything else, Tomlin said, because people thought he was too hard to deal with or incorrigible or out of control. Now peoples careers are built on drug use or rehab. And I cant imagine anything happening to Eddie Murphy like whats happened to Richard. Richard paid the price for using language on the stage, and Eddie has been celebrated for it. And I dont think Eddie would ever be conflicted the way Richard was about playing [Las] Vegas, playing white clubs with white managers and taking white money. It was a different consciousness.

The pioneer of that change in consciousness is now in virtual retirement. Doctors diagnosed Pryor as having multiple sclerosis in 1986, and his later movies show him to be thin, frail, and weak. Pryors ill health has been compounded by further heart troublehe has had triple bypass surgery and is often confined to a wheelchair. His most frequent visitors are his four children, his ex-wife Lee, and Jan Gaye, widow of singer Marvin Gaye.

Pryors current ill health does not detract from the body of work he has left behind, thougha half dozen million-selling albums, two classic concert videos, several creditable dramatic performances, andof coursethe daring live routines with their uncensored social and psychological commentary. Progressive contributor Michael H. Seitz noted that Pryor grounded his comedy on human feelings, often the most intimate sort. Handelman concluded: Even though his best work had nothing to do with one-liners, Pryor is unquestionably still the most important and influential stand-up comedian of the past 25 years. Using raw street language, he [turned] black American life into breathtaking one-man theater, his rubbery face, multioctave voice, and lithe body physicalizing every situation.

Selected discography

That Niggers Crazy, Reprise, 1974.

Bicentennial Nigger, Warner Bros., 1976.

Live on Sunset Strip, Warner Bros., 1982.

Greatest Hits, Warner Bros.

Is It Something I Said?, Reprise.

Wanted, Warner Bros.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 26, Gale, 1983.

Contemporary Theater, Film, and Television, Volume 3, Gale, 1986.

Williams, John A., and Dennis A. Williams, If I Stop Ill Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, Thunders Mouth, 1991.

Periodicals

Commonweal, May 7, 1982.

Detroit Free Press, May 2, 1986.

Ebony, July 1986.

Entertainment Weekly, October 11, 1991.

Film Comment, July-August 1982.

Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1986; November 24, 1989.

New York, March 29, 1982.

New York Times, January 9, 1977; May 2, 1986; May 18, 1986.

New York Times Magazine, April 27, 1975.

People, March 13, 1978.

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 26, 1992.

Premiere, June 1991; January 1992.

Progressive, June 1982.

Anne Janette Johnson

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Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor

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

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. □

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Pryor, Richard

Richard Pryor, 1940–2005, American comedian, b. Peoria, Ill. His iconoclastic, wildly inventive, and racially explosive comic style was expressed in language that was often crude and frequently brilliant. He performed in nightclubs and on television, made numerous recordings, and appeared in dozens of films including Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982).

See his autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (1995); biography-memoir by D. and J. Henry (2013); S. Saul, Becoming Richard Pryor (2014).

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Pryor, Richard 1940–

Richard Pryor 1940

Comedian, actor, writer

At a Glance

A Tragic Background

Early Career Moves

Fame Brought Its Own Troubles

Lonely at the Top

A Second Chance

Fans Remained Loyal

Selected discography

Sources

In the 1970s and 1980s Richard Pryor was one of Americas top comedians, an actor, writer, and stand-up artist whose irreverent albums sold in the millions. Pryor mined both personal and social tragedy for his comic material and peppered his appearances with outrageous language and adult humor. Even at the peak of his popularity, however, he suffered the dire consequences of drug and alcohol abusea heart attack, a suicide attempt, and the onset of multiple sclerosis. Since the early 1990s, he has lived a reclusive life in his Bel Air home, reportedly unable to walk and rarely seeing any but a small cadre of friends.

One of Pryors ex-wives, Jennifer Lee, told Premiere magazine: Richards so isolated from the human race. When youre with him now, you feel a kind of solitude you dont even feel when youre by yourself. Pryors is indeed the tragic story of a talented personality who took a path of self-destruction, a comic who could draw laughs from his own misfortunes but who was powerless to change his habits until the damage had been done. Premiere correspondent David Handelman theorized: Like many celebrities, Pryor turned to drugs in part out of insecurity about his fame. But he had the added guilt trip of being perhaps the most successful black man in a country of disenfranchised blacks.

Pryor was not the first African American comedian to succeed as a stand-up comic. He followed in the footsteps of Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, among others. He became unique-and a pioneer in his own right-when he created a bold new comedy of character, turning African American life into humorous performance art without softening either the message or its delivery. He could glide effortlessly from portraying an elderly wino to mimicking a cheetah poised to bag a gazelle. With an astounding repertoire of accents and body lingo, Pryor often played a predator one moment and a victim the next. His was a comedy forged from lifes tragic moments.

Pryors audience included a number of comics who have since risen to fame. I just dreamed about being like Richard Pryor, Keenen Ivory Wayans told Premiere. Pryor started it all. Hes Yoda. If Pryor had not come along, there would not be an Eddie Murphy or a Keenen Ivory Wayans or a Damon Wayans or an Arsenio Hall-or even a [white comedian like] Sam Kinison, for that matter. He made the blueprint for the progressive

At a Glance

Born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor, December 1, 1940, in Peoria, IL; son of LeRoy and Gertrude (Thomas) Pryor; married and divorced five times; children: Renee, Richard, Jr., Rain, Elizabeth. Military service: U.S. Army, 195860.

Career: Comedian, actor, and writer. Has appeared in over forty films, including Lady Sings the Blues, 1972; Uptown Saturday Night, 1974; Silver Streak, 1976; Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, 1976; Blue Collar, 1978; The Wiz, 1978; Richard Pryor Live in Concert, 1979; Stir Crazy, 1980; Bustin Loose, 1981 ; Live on Sunset Strip, 1982; Some Kind of Hero, 1982; The Toy, 1982; Superman III, 1983; Brewsters Millions, 1985; Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1985; See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 1989; Harlem Nights, 1989; and Another You, 1991. Guest and host of numerous television shows, including The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Star of The Richard Pryor Show, 1977. Author or co-author of screenplays, including Blazing Saddles, 1974; Car Wash, 1976; Silver Streak, 1976; Blue Collar, 1978; Stir Crazy, 1980; and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1985.

Selected awards: Emmy Award, 1973, for Lily; Writers Guild Award and American Academy of Humor Award, both 1974, for Blazing Saddles; five Grammy awards for best comedy albums; Emmy Award nomination and Image Award nomination for Chicago Hope, 1996; Hall of Fame Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1996; recipient of the first Mark Twain Prize, 1998.

Addresses: Agentc\o Tri-Star Pictures, 3400 Riverside Dr., Burbank, CA 91505.

thinking of black comedians, unlocked that irreverent style.

A Tragic Background

Bill Cosby told People magazine: For Richard, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it. Given Pryors background, it is not surprising that he entwined comedy and tragedy so brilliantly. He was born in Peoria, Illinois, in December, 1940, to an unwed mother. He has always claimed that he was raised in his grandmothers brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute. His parents, LeRoy and Gertrude Pryor, married when he was three, but the union did not last. Ultimately he chose to live with his grandmother, who was not shy about administering beatings.

At the height of his fame, Pryor declared that he had no bitterness about his unconventional upbringing. He revealed to People that his mother wasnt very strong, but she tried. At least she didnt flush me down the toilet, like some. He added: The biggest moment of my life was when my grandmother was with the Mike Douglas Show. On the other hand, Pryors former bodyguard and spiritual adviser Rashon Khan told Premiere that Pryor was sometimes sexually abused in his childhood environment and was often exposed to a lot of crazy stuff. Khan suggested that these childhood traumas helped set the stage for Pryors drug abuse even before he became established in his career. The problem that Richard was having with Richard was what happened when he was a kid, Khan said. It created a void so big, it didnt matter how famous he got.

In school, Pryor was often in trouble with the authorities. His one positive experience came when he was eleven. One of his teachers, Juliette Whittaker, cast him in a community theater performance and then let him entertain his classmates with his antics. Years later, Pryor gave Whittaker the Emmy Award he earned writing comedy for a Lily Tomlin special.

Pryor was expelled from high school after striking a teacher. He never returned. Instead, he sought work in a packing house and then, in 1958, joined the army. He spent his two-year hitch in West Germany, once again clashing with his superiors. Pryor returned home to Peoria in 1960, married the first of his five wives, and fathered his second child, Richard Pryor, Jr. His first child, daughter Renee, was born three years earlier.

Early Career Moves

The owner of a popular African American nightclub in Peoria gave Pryor his first professional opportunity. By the early 1960s the comedian was performing on a circuit that included East St. Louis, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh. Then, in 1963, Pryor decided to move to New York City. He settled briefly in Greenwich Village, where he performed an act with strong similarities to Bill Cosbys. Pryor told People: Ill never forget going up to Harlem and seeing all those black people. Jesus, just knowing there were that many of us made me feel better.

Pryor broke into television in New York City in 1964 when he appeared on a series called On Broadway Tonight. Other offers followed, including a couple from The Ed Sullivan Show and the Merv Griffin Show. Pryor pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, where he supported himself with bit parts in movies such as The Green Berets, starring John Wayne, and Wild in the Streets, a teen-exploitation film. He also continued to play to live audiences, especially in Las Vegas showrooms. In his early days there was a lot of Bill Cosby in Richards act, Cosby himself noted in People. Then one evening I was in the audience when Richard took on a whole new persona-his own, in front of me and everyone else. Richard killed the Bill Cosby in his act, made people hate it. Then he worked on them, doing pure Richard Pryor, and it was the most astonishing metamorphosis I have ever seen. He was magnificent.

Fame Brought Its Own Troubles

By the late 1960s Pryor was already indulging in one hundred dollars worth of cocaine a day. While his new, more personal act found followers, it also alienated the management in Las Vegas. Pryor clashed with landlords and hotel clerks, was audited by the Internal Revenue Service for nonpayment of taxes between 1967 and 1970, and was sued for battery by one of his wives. He disappeared into the counterculture community in Berkeley, California, and did not work for several years. Then he resurfaced in 1972 with a new stand-up act and a supporting role in the film Lady Sings the Blues, a drama for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.

Pryor also contributed his writing talents to other comics. He wrote bits for The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son and helped Mel Brooks to write the classic Western film comedy Blazing Saddles. In 1973 he earned an Emmy Award for the special Lily, starring Lily Tomlin. That provocative show also proved a vehicle for Pryor, when he teamed with Tomlin for a skit about a raggedy black wino and a prim, tasteful lady.

In 1976, Pryor wrote and starred in Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings. He made a bigger splash, however, in the film Silver Streak, a mixture of comedy and suspense that centers on a murderous train ride. Even though he had only a supporting role in this 1976 release starring Gene Wilder, Pryor earned the bulk of the critics attention. The film grossed $30 million at the box office, and it opened new venues for the versatile Pryor.

Lonely at the Top

Pryor was at the height of his form as a live comedian by the late 1980s. He had earned Grammy Awards for the 1974 album That Niggers Crazy and the 1976 work Bicentennial Nigger. Both of the albums went platinum in sales. In all, Pryor earned five Grammy Awards for best comedy album, but the 1979 movie Richard Pryor Live in Concert remains his indisputable moment of glory, to quote Handelman. In the New York Times Magazine, James McPherson claimed that Pryor was creating a whole new style in American comedy, a style born more of the theater than of traditional humor. The characters, McPherson wrote, are winos, junkies, whores, street fighters, blue-collar drunks, pool hustlers--all the failures who are an embarrassment to the black middle class and stereotypes in the minds of most whites. The black middle class fears the glorification of those images and most whites fear them in general. Pryor talks like them; he imitates their styles. He enters into his people and allows whatever is comic in them, whatever is human, to evolve out of what they say and how they look into a total scene. It is part of Richard Pryors genius that, through the selective use of facial expressions, gestures, speech and movements, he can create a scene that is comic and at the same time recognizable as profoundly human.

Some of those profoundly human comedy scenes were based on unhappy events in Pryors life. He had a serious heart attack in 1978 and underwent yet another divorce after a violent episode on New Years Eve that culminated in his riddling his wifes car with bullets. These two grave incidents are given the full comic treatment in Richard Pryor Live in Concert. At a point in the act, Pryor becomes his heart itself during the attack, with asides from other parts of his body. He also becomes his ex-wifes car under attack.

The theme would be recreated two years later after an even more dangerous event. By 1980 Pryor was free-basing cocaine, using volatile ether to help light the drug for smoking. No one is clear about exactly what happened on June 9,1980. At first, Pryor claimed the fire was started during the freebasing process. Later, he stated that he poured rum on himself and set himself on fire. At any rate, he nearly burned himself to death, suffering severe injuries to half his body. Early reports told of his untimely death, but he survived and underwent an anguishing rehabilitation.

The healing process did not speak to his addiction, however. He took painkillers in the hospital and returned to freebasing when he was released. Nevertheless, he began to see the fatal consequences of drug use, and this attitude is evident in his final concert movie, Live on Sunset Strip. The film contains the well-known Pryor routine about his accident, his drug use, and his stay in the hospital. New York magazine contributor David Denby called Live on Sunset Strip a perfect entertainment. The critic added: Richard Pryor works directly with the life around him, and he digs deeper into fear and lust and anger and pain than many of the novelists and playwrights now taken seriously. Like any great actor, he dramatizes emotion with his whole body, but his mind is so quick and his moods so volatile, hes light-years ahead of any actor delivering a text. Working from deep inside his own experience and understanding of what a human being is and is capable of, he can shake you to your roots.

A Second Chance

Live on Sunset Strip was released in 1982. The following year Pryor made concerted efforts to clear his system of drugs and alcohol. He joined a rehabilitation program and worked with other addicts to overcome his problems. He also tackled a project that was daring indeed--he co-wrote, directed, and starred in the 1985 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. A thinly veiled autobiography, Jo Jo Dancer stars Pryor as a comedian who relives his life immediately following a near fatal accident. Critics praised the intentions of the movie-especially the fact that Pryor hired African American workers for every aspect of the production--but the film was not a hit. Detroit Free Press critic Catherine Rambeau, for instance, cited the work for its honorable premise, but faulted it for a lack of focus.

Los Angeles Times reviewer Peter Rainer speculated that, as far as movies in general are concerned, Pryor seems to have taken a wrong turn. A number of Pryors movies did brisk business at the box office, but in Rainers words, they led Pryor into creative oblivion. Films such as The Toy, Brewsters Millions, Stir Crazy, and Bustin Loose show a Pryor who is resignedly bland. Anything malign or threatening has been bleached out, to quote Rainer. Pryors ex-wife Jennifer Lee told Premiere: Dont bother looking for a pattern to Richards movies. Hes lazy, he took the money, he doesnt care.

Fans Remained Loyal

Others held greater respect for Pryor, however. Eddie Murphy asked Pryor to co-star in the 1989 movie Harlem Nights and a huge comedy concert in Pryors honor. Commenting in Premiere on the restrictive social atmosphere that existed during Pryors rise to fame, comedienne Lily Tomlin expressed astonishment over his ability to achieve anything at all. Richard lost jobs, was blackballed and everything else, Tomlin said, because people thought he was too hard to deal with or incorrigible or out of control. Now peoples careers are built on drug use or rehab. And I cant imagine anything happening to Eddie Murphy like whats happened to Richard. Richard paid the price for using language on the stage, and Eddie has been celebrated for it. And I dont think Eddie would ever be conflicted the way Richard was about playing [Las] Vegas, playing white clubs with white managers and taking white money. It was a different consciousness.

The pioneer of that change in consciousness is now in retirement. Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that attacks the central nervous system, in 1986. He has also experienced further heart trouble, and has had triple bypass surgery. Although he is still sharp mentally, multiple sclerosis has robbed Pryor of his ability to speak clearly and he is confined to a wheelchair. Pryors physical limitations and frail, gaunt appearance are a great source of frustration for him. One of Pryors closest friends, Paul Mooney, told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, He [Pryor] has always been the life of the party. He does not like people seeing him like this, and he does not like being like this. In an ironic twist, multiple sclerosis may have actually extended Pryors life. Jennifer Lee remarked to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, I think he is grateful, in a strange way, that this sickness is extending his life. We are always joking about it. I mean, where do you think he would be now if he were able to get into his car and take off? Hed probably be off getting into more trouble.

In 1998, Pryor received the first Mark Twain Prize in celebration of American humor in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Over 2,000 guests, including Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Morgan Freeman, Richard Belzer, Tim Allen, and Damon Wayans, attended the ceremony. The ceremony featured video clips of some of Pryors most famous comedic moments interspersed with comments and tributes from comedians and actors who were influenced by Pryor. Although he was unable to rise from his chair, Pryor graciously accepted the award with a whispered Thank you. In a written statement that was quoted in Jet, Pryor wrote: I feel great about accepting this prize. It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man-now thats funny. Seriously, though, 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 peoples hatred!

Pryors ill health does not detract from the body of work he has left behind, though-a half dozen million-selling albums, two classic concert videos, several creditable dramatic performances, and-of coursethe daring live routines with their uncensored social and psychological commentary. Progressive contributor Michael H. Seitz noted that Pryor grounded his comedy on human feelings, often the most intimate sort. Handelman concluded : Even though his best work had nothing to do with one-liners, Pryor is unquestionably still the most important and influential stand-up comedian of the past 25 years. Using raw street language, he [turned] black American life into breathtaking one-man theater, his rubbery face, multioctave voice, and lithe body physicalizing every situation. As Damon Wayans told Jet, If [a comedian] hasnt copied from Richard Pryor, then youre probably not funny. Like Michael Jordan has defined the game of basketball, Richard Pryor has defined stand up comedy.

Selected discography

That Niggers Crazy, Reprise, 1974.

Bicentennial Nigger, Warner Bros., 1976.

Live on Sunset Strip, Warner Bros., 1982.

Greatest Hits, Warner Bros.

Is It Something I Said?, Reprise.

Wanted, Warner Bros.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 26, Gale, 1983.

Contemporary Theater, Film, and Television, Volume 3, Gale, 1986.

Periodicals

Commonweal, May 7, 1982.

Detroit Free Press, May 2, 1986.

Ebony, July 1986.

Entertainment Weekly, October 11, 1991.

Film Comment, July-August 1982.

Jet, November 9, 1998.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 15, 1999.

Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1986; November 24, 1989.

New York, March 29, 1982.

New York Times, January 9, 1977; May 2, 1986; May 18, 1986.

New York Times Magazine, April 27, 1975.

People, March 13, 1978.

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 26, 1992.

Premiere, June 1991; January 1992.

Progressive, June 1982.

Anne Janette Johnson and David G. Oblender

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"Pryor, Richard 1940–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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