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Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor was an American comedian, actor, and writer. Pryor was a gifted storyteller known for unflinching examinations of race and custom in modern life, and was well-known for his frequent use of colorful language, vulgarities, as well as such racial epithets as nigger, honky, and cracker. He reached a broad audience with his trenchant observations, although public opinion of his act was often divided.

Pryor was at his best when he took the tragic events that happened during his life and made them a part of his onstage routine. Some of these have been preserved in such concert movies and recordings as Richard Pryor: Live & Smokin' (1971), That Nigger's Crazy (1974), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), Richard Pryor: Wanted Live In Concert (1979) and Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982). He also starred in numerous films as an actor, usually in comedies, but occasionally in the noteworthy dramatic role, such as Paul Schrader's film Blue Collar. He won an Emmy Award in 1973, and five Grammy Awards in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1982. In 1974 he also won two American Academy of Humor Awards and the Writers Guild of America Award.

Early life and career

Born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor grew up in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother Gertude practiced prostitution. His father LeRoy Pryor (a.k.a. Buck Carter) was a bartender, boxer, and World War II veteran.

From 1958 to 1960, Pryor served in the U.S. Army but spent virtually that entire stint in an army prison. According to a 1999 profile about Pryor in the New Yorker, Pryor was incarcerated for an incident that occurred while stationed in Germany. Annoyed that a white soldier was a bit too amused at the racially charged sections of Douglas Sirk's movie Imitation of Life, Pryor and some other black soldiers beat the white soldier and also stabbed him (not fatally).

His mother died in 1967; his father the following year.

His first professional performance came at the age of seven, when he played drums at a night club. From his late 20s to 30s, Pryor was a middlebrow comic with a style in the Bill Cosby tradition, far less controversial than what was to come. The first five tracks on the 2005 compilation CD Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966-1974), recorded in 1966 and 1967, capture Pryor in this era.

In September 1967, Pryor had what he called in his autobiography Pryor Convictions an epiphany when he walked onto the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas (with Dean Martin in the audience), looked at the sold-out crowd, said over the microphone What the fuck am I doing here!?, and walked off the stage. Afterward, Pryor began working at least mild profanity into his act, including the word nigger. His first comedy recording, the eponymous 1968 debut release on the Dove/Reprise label, captures this particular period, not long after that breakdown.

Mainstream success

In 1969 Pryor moved to Berkeley, California, where he immersed himself in the counterculture and rubbed elbows with the likes of Huey P. Newton and Ishmael Reed. He signed with the comedy-centric independent record label Laff Records in 1970 and recorded his second album, Craps (After Hours). In 1972, the relatively unknown comedian appeared in his first film, a documentary entitled Wattstax, where he riffed on the tragic-comic absurdities of race relations in Watts and the nation. Not long afterward, Pryor sought a deal with a larger label, and after a protracted period of time, signed with Stax Records. His third, breakthrough album, That Nigger's Crazy, was released in 1974 and, Laff, who claimed ownership of Pryor's recording rights, almost succeeded in getting an injunction to prevent the album from being sold. Negotiations led to Pryor being released from his Laff contract in exchange for the small label being allowed to release previously unissued material, recorded between 1968 and 1973, at their leisure.

During the legal battle, Stax briefly closed its doors. Pryor then re-signed with Reprise/Warner Bros., who immediately rereleased That Nigger's Crazy on the heels of his first album under his new Reprise/Warner Bros. deal, ...Is It Something I Said?. With every successful album Pryor recorded for Warner Bros. (or later, his concert films and his 1980 free-basing accident), Laff would quickly publish a hastily-compiled, badly-packaged album of old material to capitalize on Pryor's growing fame - a practice the label would continue until 1983.

Pryor also made an attempt to break into mainstream television during this period. The Richard Pryor Show premiered on NBC in 1977 but after only five shows, the series was cancelled. Television was not ready for the show's controversial subject matter, and Pryor was not ready to alter the content of his program to meet the demands of network censors. During the short-lived series, he portrayed the first African-American president of the United States and in another skit, used costumes and visual distortion to appear nude.

Comfortably successful and into the zenith of his career, Pryor visited Africa in 1979. Upon returning to the United States, Pryor swore he would never use the N word in his stand-up comedy routine again. (His favorite epithet, motherfucker, remains a term of endearment on his official website to this day.)

In 1983 his status as a major worldwide star was confirmed when he signed a five year contract with Columbia pictures for $40,000,000

Early in his career he wrote for such television shows as Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show and a Lily Tomlin special, for which he shared an Emmy Award. Pryor appeared in several popular films including Lady Sings the Blues, The Mack, Uptown Saturday Night, Silver Streak, Which Way Is Up?, Car Wash, The Toy, Superman III (which earned Pryor $4,000,000), Brewster's Millions, Stir Crazy, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, Moving, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Though he made four films with Gene Wilder, the two comic actors were never as close as many thought according to the latter's autobiography.

Pryor also co-wrote Blazing Saddles directed by Mel Brooks and starring Gene Wilder. Pryor was to play the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, but the film's producers were unsettled by his vulgarity and Mel Brooks chose Cleavon Little instead. Before his infamous 1980 free-basing accident, Pryor was about to start filming Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I, but was replaced at the last minute by Gregory Hines. Pryor was also originally considered for the role of Billy Ray Valentine on Trading Places (1983), before Eddie Murphy ultimately won the part.

Of particular note is The Toy, known equally as being one of Jackie Gleason's last projects.

Pryor co-hosted the Academy Awards twice, and was also nominated for an Emmy for a guest role on the television series, Chicago Hope.

The freebasing incident and its aftermath

On June 1, 1980, Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Pryor made this part of his heralded final stand up show Richard Pryor Live On Sunset Strip (1982). After joking that the incident was actually caused when he dunked a cookie into a glass containing two different types of milk, he gave a poignant yet funny account of his accident and recovery, then poked fun at people who told jokes about it by waving a lit match and saying "What's this? It's Richard Pryor running down the street." Interviewed in 2005, his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor said that Richard poured high-proof rum over his body and torched himself in a drug psychosis. In a TV interview during his recovery Pryor said that he tried to commit suicide. His management created the accident lie for the press in hopes of protecting him. One of his jokes about this subject was "When you're running down the street on fire, people get out of your way."

He didn't stay away from live stand-up too long, though - in 1983 he filmed and released a new concert film and accompanying album, Here And Now, which he directed himself. He then wrote and directed a fictionalized account of his life, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.

In 1986, Pryor announced that he suffered from multiple sclerosis. In response to giving up drugs after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he said: God gave me this M.S. shit to save my life. In 1992 he gave some final live performances, excerpts of which appear on the ...And It's Deep Too! box set. He continued to make occasional film appearances, pairing with Wilder one last time in the unsuccessful 1991 comedy, Another You (in which his physical deterioration was noted by many critics). His final film appearance was a small role in the David Lynch film Lost Highway in 1997.

Around 1981 Pryor became a Freemason joining Henry Brown Lodge No. 22, Peoria, IL.

Later life

In 1998, Pryor won the inaugural Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. According to Former Kennedy Center President Lawrence J. Wilker, "Richard Pryor was selected as the first recipient of the new Mark Twain Prize because as a stand-up comic, writer, and actor, he struck a chord, and a nerve, with America, forcing it to look at large social questions of race and the more tragicomic aspects of the human condition. Though uncompromising in his wit, Pryor, like Twain, projects a generosity of spirit that unites us. They were both trenchant social critics who spoke the truth, however outrageous."

In 2000, Rhino Records remastered all of Pryor's Reprise and Warner Bros. albums for inclusion in the box set ...And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992).

In 2002, Pryor and his wife/manager Jennifer Lee Pryor, won the legal rights to all of the Laff material - almost 40 hours of reel-to-reel analog tape. After going through the tapes and getting Richard's blessing, Jennifer Lee Pryor gave Rhino Records access to the Laff tapes in 2004. These tapes, including the entire Craps album, form the basis of the double-CD release Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966-1974).

In 2003, a television documentary, Richard Pryor: I Ain't Dead Yet, #*%$#@!!, came out. It consisted of archival footage of Pryor's performances and testimonials from fellow comedians such as Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes and Denis Leary of the influence Pryor had on comedy.

In 2004, Pryor was voted #1 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 greatest standups of all time. In a 2005 British poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, Pryor was voted the 10th greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.

In his later years, Richard Pryor became a wheelchair user due to multiple sclerosis. In late 2004 his sister claimed that Pryor lost his voice. However, on January 9, 2005, Pryor himself rebutted this statement in a post on his official website, where he stated, "Sick of hearing this shit about me not talking... not true... good days, bad days... but I still am a talkin' motherfucker!"

Pryor and his family were avid supporters of animal rights and the anti-vivisection movement. Pryor once offered a $1,000 reward for the arrest of the person who drowned dogs in Nahant, Massachusetts. Links to groups he supported can be found on his official website.

Death

Pryor died of cardiac arrest at the age of 65 in Encino, California. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital at 7:58 a.m. Pacific Time on December 10, 2005. He was brought to the hospital after his wife's attempts to resuscitate him failed. His wife was quoted as saying at the end, there was a smile on his face.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2006.
Read earlier biographies on this page.

Richard Pryor Facts

Birth NameRichard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III
OccupationActor
BirthdayDecember 1, 1940
SignSagittarius
BirthplacePeoria, Illinois, USA
Date of deathDecember 10, 2005 (Encino, California, USA, age 65)
Height5' 10" (1m78)  How tall is Richard Pryor compared to you?

Selected Filmography

Executive Decision
The Wiz
Black Brigade
Bible According to Hollywood
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic
Which Way Is Up?
Harlem Nights
The List
Motown 25: Yesterday Today Forever
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