Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. In this series, we’re exploring the people and musical styles that influenced the development of hip hop. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic. Today, we’re examining the life and career of one of the greastest stand-up comedians of all time, Richard Pryor. Here is the David F. Smydra Jr.’s entry on Richard Pryor from the upcoming eight-volume African American National Biography:
Richard Pryor (1 Dec. 1940–10 Dec. 2005 ), comedian and actor, was born Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor in Peoria, Illinois, the son of LeRoy “Buck Carter” Pryor Jr. and Gertrude Thomas. Carter managed the family bar, the Famous Door, while Thomas and her mother-in-law—whom Pryor called Mama—managed a handful of mixed clientele brothels in Peoria. Between spying on the couples (which occasionally included his mother) and frequenting the Famous Door, Pryor lived a childhood of inconsistency and emotional turbulence; he did, however, credit Mama and his parents for the relative affluence that accompanied their professions. Prompted by Thomas’s severe alcoholism and subsequent disappearances, sometimes for as long as six months, Carter divorced her in 1950. Thomas moved to her family farm in Springfield, Missouri, and Pryor would later identify his visits there as the most peaceful moments of his life.
When Pryor was six years old, a local teenager sexually molested him; at about the same age he also discovered he could make his family laugh with pratfalls off the front porch or by slipping on dog feces. He earned high marks at a Catholic grade school but was expelled at the age of ten when the school’s administration learned of his family’s businesses. In junior high his teacher bribed him to do homework by promising him a few minutes every week to tell jokes at the front of the classroom. Gaining confidence and enjoying the attention, Pryor continued his class shenanigans until a couple of years later, when another teacher requested that he stop. Pryor responded by jokingly—so he claimed—swinging at the teacher. He was expelled instantly and left to work odd jobs in Peoria for four years until he joined the army at age eighteen. Pryor was stationed in Idar-Oberstein in West Germany, but his tour ended in 1960 when he aided a fellow black soldier in a bar fight by stabbing the white opponent.
Narrowly escaping jail, Pryor was discharged and allowed to return home, where he flitted about for a couple of months before conning the manager of a local “black and tan” nightclub (that is, one catering to blacks and whites) into letting him play the piano and sing. Pryor could do neither. But his onstage charisma and likability rescued him, and he became the regular emcee. He began working other such clubs and was soon introduced to marijuana and amphetamines. Also in 1960 Pryor married his girlfriend, who was pregnant with his first son, but he left Peoria almost immediately after Richard Jr.’s birth, accompanying some local comedians and singers on a tour of the Midwest and Canada.
After a year of touring, Pryor, along with many black comedians of the time, was particularly affected in 1963 by seeing Bill Cosby on the cover of Newsweek, and he thought, “Goddamn it, this nigger’s doing what I’m fixing to do. I want to be the only nigger. Ain’t no room for two niggers” (Pryor, 68). He left immediately for New York, and although he “only had $10” in his pocket, he swore he looked at least “like $50” (Pryor, 69).
Pryor’s contemporaries in the Greenwich Village comedy scene included Cosby, Woody Allen, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Flip Wilson, and Joan Rivers. Under pressure to avoid a resemblance to every club owner’s bête noire, the raunchy and unpredictable Lenny Bruce, Pryor emulated Cosby as closely as possible. Moving quickly from small jazz clubs to larger venues, such as the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Pryor made his first television appearance on 31 August 1964, on Rudy Vallee’s On Broadway Tonight; appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show soon followed. By this time Pryor, at the urgings of a prostitute he was dating, had also begun using cocaine. Except for a purported seven-month period of sobriety more than a decade later, Pryor fought cocaine addiction until he reached a degenerative state of illness in the early 1990s.
The increasing turmoil of Pryor’s personal life provided a body of subject matter that he expertly wove into his performances, but the success that accompanied his newly emerging comedic style only worsened his addictions and increased his philandering. The late 1960s sped by in a whirlwind that included his first movie appearance—a bit role in Sid Caesar’s film The Busy Body (1967)—the birth of two more children, another failed marriage, and his father’s death. Finally, Pryor had a nervous breakdown in Las Vegas, when he walked onstage, froze, and spoke only one sentence before walking off: “What the fuck am I doing here?”
In 1969, with the help of friends, Pryor attempted to write, produce, and star in an innovative, yet poorly executed racial satire entitled The Trial, in which one white man is tried for every racial crime in American history. But Pryor destroyed the only copy of the script in a domestic dispute. His career brought to a standstill by unarticulated frustrations, Pryor moved to Berkeley, California, in 1970 and lived eccentrically, walking the streets in a kimono and getting high for days at a time. Still, he managed to stumble upon a sympathetic and like-minded emerging set of African American intellectuals and activists, namely Ishmael Reed, Angela Davis, and Claude Brown. Pryor shut himself in and compulsively read a collection of Malcolm X’s speeches and listened to Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Goin’ On?” Determined to find his voice, he began delivering increasingly experimental performances in small clubs. He would typically speak a curse word, such as “bitch” or “motherfucker,” dozens of times, attempting to hit a different inflection for every one. Eventually he tried “nigger.” Speaking the one word that every club owner had hitherto prohibited provided the breakthrough he needed.
In 1971 Pryor returned to the Improv in New York City to record new material for his first concert film, Smokin’, and his second stand-up album, Craps after Hours. Mel Brooks then solicited him to help pen the ribald comedy Blazing Saddles, for which it was understood that Pryor would play the lead, a black sheriff in the Old West. The studio, however, apparently feared Pryor’s controversial edge and cast Cleavon Little instead. But Pryor demonstrated his commitment to acting by playing Piano Man in Diana Ross’s vehicle Lady Sings the Blues (1972), for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.
Television opportunities soon presented themselves: Pryor most enjoyed collaborating on Lily Tomlin’s variety show, but he also hosted NBC’s new skit series, Saturday Night Live, and the network quickly offered him his own show. He locked horns with the censors, however, and The Richard Pryor Show ran for only four episodes. Otherwise, Pryor continued to experience a creative boon in comedy and film. Three consecutive albums won Grammys: That Nigger’s Crazy (1974), Is It Something I Said? (1975), and Bicentennial Nigger (1976). He played his first dramatic film lead in Greased Lightning (1976), in which he portrayed race car legend Wendell Scott. Pryor teamed with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak that same year, and delivered in Blue Collar (1978) what some critics consider his most accomplished performance. His cocaine use dangerously increased as well, and he suffered the first of two heart attacks. A recovered Pryor then divorced his third wife, Deboragh McGuire, and began dating Jennifer Lee, with whom he traveled to Africa at decade’s end and later married.
In perhaps his most rounded concert film, Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), Pryor explains the revelatory experience of waiting in a Kenyan hotel lobby after a three-week sojourn: “A voice said, ‘What do you see? Look around.’ And I looked around, and I looked around, and I saw people of all colors and shapes, and the voice said, ‘You see any niggers?’ I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘You know why? ‘Cause there aren’t any’” (Pryor, 175). In three weeks Pryor had not used the word once; he vowed never to use it again, a vow he faithfully kept for some time. Many black entertainers, however, chastised him for “selling out” and rejecting what they believed was a reclaimed term of black empowerment. More important than such shifting semantics, however, was Pryor’s unique take on American racial dynamics, prompting one critic to observe that if Pryor “played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck” (Als, 385).
In Sunset Strip, Pryor also speaks of the notorious self-immolation he had suffered a year earlier while freebasing cocaine, a tremendously dangerous method of using the drug that involves inhaling the fumes of a melted clump of cocaine laced with ether. Although accounts differ, a strung-out Pryor apparently poured cognac or rum over his body and flicked a lighter, then ran out of his Los Angeles house and down the street, where the fire extinguished itself by burning his clothes into his skin. In shock, Pryor continued walking alongside police officers who were asking him to stop for an ambulance. Pryor responded, “If I stop, I’ll die.”
Pryor’s work in subsequent years became uneven. Lee divorced him after six months, and his directorial debut, the autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986) teetered indecisively between comedy and drama. He fired his confidant and business partner, the former football star Jim Brown, from his film production company, a decision that further strained his relationship with the black entertainment community, and he repeatedly agreed to appear in lifeless but high-paying movies like The Toy (1982), Superman III (1983), and Brewster’s Millions (1985). It was on the set of Critical Condition in 1986, however, that Pryor first felt the symptoms of multiple sclerosis; he was officially diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic later that year. Keeping the affliction secret, Pryor made another movie with Gene Wilder in 1986 and teamed with Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy in 1989’s Harlem Nights. The multiple sclerosis, compounded with decades of heavy drug use, contributed to another heart attack and subsequent quadruple bypass surgery in 1991.
Pryor logged one final “stand-up” performance in 1992 at the Circle House Theater in San Francisco, sitting in a leather chair onstage with a cane by his side. Buoyed by positive reviews, he briefly attempted a tour, which exhaustion brought to a close in early 1993. He reunited with Jennifer Lee in 1994, who assumed caretaking duties. In 1998 Pryor was awarded the Kennedy Center’s inaugural Mark Twain Prize, a significant tribute for which he was feted by lifelong friends and fellow comedians. After suffering for years with multiple sclerosis, Richard Pryor died of a heart attack just days after his sixty-fifth birthday.
- Pryor, Richard, with Todd Gold. Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (1995).
- Als, Hilton. A Pryor Love in Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker, ed. David Remnick (2001).
- Haskins, Jim. Richard Pryor: A Man and His Madness (1984).
- Robbins, Fred, and David Ragan. Richard Pryor: This Cat’s Got Nine Lives! (1982).
- Williams, John A., and Dennis A. Williams. If I Stop I’ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor (1991).
Featured Image Credit: ‘Manhattan’, Photo by Unsplash, CC0 Public Domain, via pixabay.