Pryor, Richard 1940–2005

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Pryor, Richard 1940–2005

(Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor)

OBITUARY NOTICE—See index for CA sketch: Born December 1, 1940, in Peoria, IL; died of heart failure, December 10, 2005, in Los Angeles, CA. Comedian, actor, film director and producer, and author. Considered a groundbreaking, pioneering comedian, Pryor was an award-winning performer who dared to joke irreverently on race relations and other taboo subjects. Growing up in a less-than-ideal environment with his grandmother, who ran a brothel, his home nonetheless gave him inspiration. The brothel catered to black entertainers, and Pryor himself soon became one himself; at school he was soon known as the class clown. When the director of the local Carver Community Center, Juliette Whittaker, noticed the boy's talent, she encouraged him to be a comic, helping Pryor get his star. Pryor, however, was also beginning to exhibit the self-destructive behavior that would later catch up with him; when he was just fourteen, for example, he had already fathered a child. Getting away from the neighborhood in 1958, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving for the next two years. After he left the military in 1960, Pryor pursued his ambition to be an entertainer. He traveled the country for years as a stand-up performer, but did not find his real niche until 1967. Suddenly, he had a flash of inspiration to tell the truth about black-white relations and the black experience in general. Performing at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, Pryor let out all the stops, using swear words and his storytelling abilities to startle audiences with his frank humor. Soon afterwards, the comic's career began to take off as a live performer, movie star, and Grammy Award winner. He won six Grammies in all for best album, including for That Nigger's Crazy, Is It Something I Said?, Bicentennial Nigger, Rev. Du Rite, Live on Sunset Strip, and "… and It's Deep, Too!" Critics generally considered his recordings to be his best medium, though Pryor was also appreciated for his films and television work. His short-lived 1977 television show, The Richard Pryor Show, is seen by many as a forerunner of black comedy shows such as In Living Color and Chappelle's Show; he also won an Emmy award in 1973 for cowriting Lily with Lily Tomlin and was a writer for the popular Sanford & Son series. He filmed about forty movies to greater or lesser acclaim, the most popular being his films with friend Gene Wilder: Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. Pryor also earned the American Writers Guild Award and American Academy of Humor Award in 1974 for writing the script for Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks. More recently, he was nominated for an Academy award for his acting role in Lady Sings the Blues. Despite these successes, Pryor's personal problems caught up to him repeatedly. He was married six times and was the father of several estranged children. He also suffered from drug addictions until the 1990s, when he was finally rehabilitated. The lowest point in his life came in 1980, when, after free basing cocaine, he poured alcohol on himself, took a cigarette lighter, and set himself on fire. Though he recovered, in the 1990s he learned that he had multiple sclerosis, and he eventually became wheelchair bound. Pryor also suffered from heart problems, which eventually led to his death. Despite serious health issues, he continued to work into the twenty-first century, performing occasionally at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, as well as in an episode of the television series Chicago Hope. Pryor reveals his life story in the autobiography, Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences (1995).



Pryor, Richard, and Todd Gold, Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1995.


Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2005, pp. A1, A40-41.

New York Times, December 12, 2005, p. A24.

Times (London, England), December 12, 2005, p. 51.

Washington Post, December 11, 2005, pp. A1, A16.