Richard Pryor (1940-2005)

Richard Pryor, February 1986
Courtesy Alan Light (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, was an American stand-up comedian, writer, actor and social critic who revolutionized the comedy world in the 1960s and 1970s. He became famous for colorful, irreverent and often vulgar language as he comically described the major issues of the period.  Pryor won an Emmy award in 1973 and five Grammy Awards between 1974 and 1982.

Richard Pryor was born on December 1, 1940 and raised in Peoria, Illinois. Abandoned by his parents when he was 10, Pryor and three other siblings were raised in his grandmother’s brothel. As a youth, he was raped by a teenaged neighbor and molested by a Catholic priest. He was expelled from school at the age of 14 and began working as a janitor, meat packer, and truck driver. Pryor served in the U.S army spending most of that time in an army prison for assaulting a fellow soldier while stationed in Germany. In 1960, Pryor married Patricia Price and they would had his first child, Richard Jr. The couple divorced in 1961.

Inspired by fellow comedian Bill Cosby, Pryor moved to New York in 1963 and gained recognition for his club work as a stand-up comic. He made his first major television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and soon gained a national audience.  Pryor began using profanity in his acts in 1967 and on his first comedy recording, released in 1968 on the Dove/Reprise label.  Meanwhile second child, Elizabeth Ann, was born in 1967 to his girlfriend, Maxine Anderson. Later that same year, he married Shelly Bonus whom with he had his third child,  Rain Pryor. The couple divorced in 1967 as well.  Pryor was married seven times. His last wife was Jennifer Lee whom he married in 2001. Eventually he had six children.

In the late 1960s, Pryor moved to Berkeley, California where he meet Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Pryor became engrossed in the counterculture of the area and the era which influenced his comedy.  He signed with Laff Records in 1970 and eventually released 19 albums on that label. His most admired comedic album, “That N*****’s Crazy” appeared in 1974 on the Stax Record Label. From 1978 to 1989 he appeared in over 30 movies, including Uptown Saturday Night, The Wiz, Superman III, and The Toy with Jackie Gleason.  Pryor also wrote for the television series, Sanford and Son and The Flip Wilson Show and co-wrote the screenplay for the film, Blazing Saddles.

Pryor suffered a mild heart attack in November, 1977 at the age of 37.  In 1986 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  A second severe heart attack in 1990 forced him to undergo a triple heart bypass surgery.  In 1980, while making the film, Bustin’ Loose, Pryor set himself on fire after freebasing cocaine while drinking 151-proof rum.

On December 10, 2005, Pryor went into cardiac arrest in Encino, California. He was taken to the hospital where he could not be revived. He died at the age of 65. Despite repeated personal tragedies, Richard Pryor left a legacy to the world of comedy entertainment that remains influential into the 21st Century.