Pryor, Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas

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PRYOR, Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas

(b. 1 December 1940 in Peoria, Illinois), comedian, actor, writer, and director who is one of the most influential American comedians and the first African-American artist to successfully address racial issues in his acts in the 1960s.

Pryor was born to Leroy "Buck Carter" Pryor, a construction worker, and Gertrude Thomas. Pryor's father married Thomas three years after his birth, but their marriage lasted only a few years. Pryor grew up in Peoria with his grandmother Marie Carter Bryant, who owned several brothels. A caring and tough woman, Pryor's grandmother often disciplined him.

Pryor did not achieve much academically. In junior high school he behaved incorrigibly and was a frequent truant. In his autobiography Pryor stated that he was kicked out of Catholic school when school officials learned about his grandmother's occupation. Pryor found a positive role model in Juliette Whittaker, a teacher at Carver Community Center in Peoria. In the eighth grade he left school; some sources say he was expelled from school for striking a teacher, but others say he dropped out of school. He joined the U.S. Army in 1958, serving in West Germany, but was discharged after two years. He then worked briefly at the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

Pryor returned to Peoria in 1960 and married Patricia Price, the first of his five wives. They had a son, Pryor's second child, but split afterward. (His first child, a daughter, had been born three years earlier.) Pryor began his stand-up comic career in a Peoria nightclub, Harold's, in the early 1960s. He was not the first African American to succeed as a stand-up comedian; Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, among others, had already enjoyed success. Pryor became a unique comic when he created a bold new comedic character, turning black American life into humorous performance art. In the 1960s, when many black comedians were gently trying to pry open the color barriers, Pryor was rising quickly in the entertainment business.

Pryor moved to New York City, where he performed stand-up comedy in Harlem and Greenwich Village in 1963. Inspired by the success of Cosby, he modeled jokes in the same fashion, avoiding politics and race to appeal to white audiences. In 1964 Pryor made his television debut on Rudy Vallee's Summer Variety Show, in the series entitled "On Broadway Tonight." His appearances on Merv Griffin (1965) and Kraft Music Hall helped him to enter the entertainment mainstream. Pryor was also featured on Th e Ed Sullivan Show, the first of his many performances on the legendary program. By the mid-1960s his reputation as a comic had spread, making him one of the industry's hottest stars.

In 1966 Pryor appeared in his first film, The Busy Body, and in early 1968 he worked at the Village Gate in New York City, one of the few clubs that did not object to his new material. Although his professional successes continued to mount, with Grammy Award–winning record albums and critically acclaimed performances in Las Vegas, New York City, and Hollywood, Pryor was becoming increasingly erratic and unstable. His alcohol and drug abuse, along with numerous affairs, had started to take its toll on his stage appearances, leading to a breakdown in Las Vegas in 1967. In 1968 Pryor played bit parts in the movies Wild in the Streets and The Green Berets. His first album, Richard Pryor (1969), is considered a collector's item. Pryor also acted in two films in 1969, The Young Lawyers and Carter's Army, and continued to perform before live audiences in Las Vegas. The end of the 1960s brought Pryor two more children (with Maxine Silverman) and one more failed marriage (to Shelly Bonus). Pryor was also audited by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for nonpayment of taxes between 1967 and 1970, and was sued for battery by his third wife, Deborah McGuire, for shooting bullet holes into her car.

Pryor won his first important movie role in 1970, when he portrayed Billie Holiday's piano player in Lady Sings the Blues, a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. In the early 1970s Pryor started writing screenplays and contributed his writing talents to the film Blazing Saddles (1974) and television shows such as the Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son. His script for the television special Lily Tomlin (1973) earned him an Emmy Award, a Writers Guild Award, and an American Academy of Humor Award.

In the mid-1970s Pryor's career was skyrocketing, and he produced three more albums, That Nigger's Crazy (1974), Is It Something I Said? (1975), and Bicentennial Nigger (1976), which won Grammy Awards. Pryor married Shelley Bonus in 1967 and divorced in 1970, briefly married Deboragh McGuire in 1977 and divorced in 1978, and then married Jennifer Lee in 1979 but divorced in 1981.

In 1980, at the pinnacle of his success, Pryor was critically injured in a fire while freebasing cocaine at his residence. In 1984 he had a son with Flynn BeLaine, whom he married in 1986 but divorced a few months later. The couple remarried in 1990, had another child, and divorced later. His 1986 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, which Pryor cowrote, directed, starred in, and produced, was a semiautobiographical tale of his troubled life. The onset of multiple sclerosis in 1986 and quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1991 left Pryor debilitated.

Pryor is one of the most honored African-American entertainers in history, having earned four Grammy Awards for comedy albums, one Emmy Award, and two American Academy Humor Awards. He received the inaugural Mark Twain Prize for American humor in 1998, an MTV Films Lifetime Achievement award in 2000, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1993. His hometown, Peoria, honored Pryor by naming a street after him.

Pryor's life is a tragic story of a talented personality who took a path of self-destruction, a comedian who drew laughs from his own misfortunes but was powerless to change his habits. In spite of his checkered reputation, Pryor is an enormously gifted comic, actor, and writer who is remembered for his brilliance, influence, and for breaking barriers in the industry.

Pryor's autobiography is Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (1995), written with Todd Gold. It details his difficult childhood, career, failed marriages, substance abuse problems, and multiple sclerosis. Biographies of Pryor include: Joseph Nazel, Richard Pryor: The Man Behind the Laughter (1981); Ronald Haver, Richard Pryor: The Legend of a Survivor (1981); Fred Robbins and David Ragan, Richard Pryor: This Cat's Got Nine Lives (1982); Jeff Rovin, Richard Pryor: Black and Blue (1983); Jim Haskins, Richard Pryor: A Man and His Madness, A Biography (1984); and John A. Williams and Dennis A. Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor (1991). Other biographical information is in David Schumacher, "Richard Pryor in His Own Words," Entertainment Weekly (30 Apr. 1993).