Pryor, Richard (1940—)

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Pryor, Richard (1940—)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Richard Pryor was one of America's top comedians, creating a daring new comedy of character by transforming African-American culture into humorous performance art. Pryor called upon both personal and social tragedy for his comic material, with his irreverent stage appearances laced with salty language and adult humor. His comedy albums during the 1970s and 1980s sold millions, and his work has influenced a new generation of comedians, including Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans, and Arsenio Hall.

Despite his popularity and critical acclaim, tragedy often was just around the corner for Pryor. Throughout much of his career, he battled drug and alcohol abuse. He also survived a heart attack and a suicide attempt, and has incurred the onset of multiple sclerosis. Because of the disease, Pryor now lives a reclusive life in his Bel Air, California, home, almost unable to walk and seeing only a small group of friends. Bill Cosby once summed up the element of tragedy in Pryor's life and work by saying, "For Richard, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it."

Born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1940 to an unwed mother, Pryor claims to have been raised in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute. His parents, LeRoy and Gertrude Pryor, married when he was three years old, but the marriage soon failed. Pryor continued to live with his grandmother, who administered beatings on a regular basis. While in school, the comedian was often in trouble with the law. However, it was at age eleven that Pryor got his first taste of show business when he was cast in a community theater performance by a teacher who also allowed him to entertain fellow students with his comedic antics. Many years later, Pryor gave the teacher an Emmy Award that the comedian had won for writing a Lily Tomlin special.

However, trouble continued to plague Pryor in high school when he was expelled for hitting a teacher. After deciding not to return to school, Pryor worked in a meat-packing house and then joined the Army in 1958. While serving a two-year hitch in West Germany, Pryor clashed with his superiors. In 1960 he returned to Peoria, married the first of five wives, and fathered his second child, Richard Pryor, Jr. Pryor's first child, Renee, had been born three years earlier.

Pryor's first professional break came when a popular African American nightclub in Peoria let him perform stand-up on stage. By the early 1960s Pryor was performing regularly on a comedy circuit that included East St. Louis, Missouri, and Youngstown and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1963 he moved to New York City, performing an act highly influenced by his comedic heroes, Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory. Pryor made his television debut in 1964 by appearing on the series On Broadway Tonight. Soon thereafter, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Merv Griffin Show. By the mid-1960s, Pryor had moved to Los Angeles, landing small parts in such films as The Green Berets and Wild in the Streets. During this time, he continued playing live shows, primarily in Las Vegas showrooms, where he dropped the Cosby-influenced act and developed his own raw, raucous stage persona.

By the late 1960s, Pryor's career was in high gear, while his personal life was in chaos with a cocaine habit; clashes with Las Vegas management, landlords, and hotel clerks; a battery lawsuit by one of his wives; and an Internal Revenue Service audit for failure to pay taxes between 1967 and 1970. After laying low in the counterculture community in Berkeley, for several years, Pryor emerged in 1972 with a new stand-up act and a supporting role in the film The Lady Sings the Blues, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. In 1976, he wrote and starred in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, plus co-starred with Gene Wilder in the hit comedy-suspense film Silver Streak, which grossed $30 million. Also in the 1970s, two of Pryor's comedy albums went platinum, and the 1979 movie Richard Pryor Live in Concert was acclaimed by critics as the comedian's crowning achievement. In the film, the characters portrayed by Pryor include winos, junkies, prostitutes, street fighters, blue-collar drunks, and pool hustlers—all denizens of the underbelly of the American Dream.

During the course of this success, Pryor's life continued on its erratic path, as he suffered a heart attack in 1978 and was divorced after a violent New Year's Eve incident that ended with his riddling his wife's car with bullets. By 1980 Pryor was freebasing cocaine, which apparently precipitated the June 9, 1980, incident in which Pryor caught on fire, suffering severe injuries to half his body. Once again calling upon material from his own life, Pryor in his 1982 concert movie Live on Sunset Strip parodied the accident, his drug use, and his stay in the hospital. A year later, he joined a drug rehabilitation program and worked with other addicts to overcome his problems. In 1985, Pryor co-wrote, directed, and starred in the autobiographical movie Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, playing a comedian reliving his life following a near fatal accident. Other 1980s films featuring Pryor included The Toy (1982), Brewster's Millions (1985), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Harlem Nights (1989).

Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, and his later films show him in a weakened condition. In 1990 he appeared in Another You, and he also had a small role in David Lynch's 1997 film Lost Highway. With more than forty movie credits, more than twenty comedy records, numerous appearances on the Tonight Show and other TV programs, and countless live performances, Pryor's legacy is that he turned African American life into a bold one-man theater, and in so doing transformed the face of modern comedy.

—Dennis Russell

Further Reading:

Haskins, James. Richard Pryor: A Man and His Madness. New York, Beaufort Books, 1984.

Pryor, Richard, and Todd Gold. Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. New York, Pantheon, 1995.

Robbins, Fred, and David Ragan. Richard Pryor: This Cat's Got Nine Lives. New York, Delilah Books, 1982.

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.