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Pryor, Richard(1940–2005) - Comedian, actor, screenwriter, Chronology, Begins Performing Career on Local Stage

film comedy life pryor’s

Richard Pryor transcended the turmoil of his personal life to become one of the greatest comedians and performers in the history of American entertainment. Although he achieved great fame, success, and wealth, Pryor challenged conventions and generated controversy with his daring use of language and subject matter considered off-limits for the general public. Pryor also suffered the consequences of several difficult marriages and divorces, dangerous lifestyle choices, and debilitating illness in his final years.

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor was born on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois. His mother, Gertrude Thomas, was a local prostitute, and his father LeRoy Pryor Jr. (also known as Buck Carter) was a bartender, boxer, and veteran of World War II. Although his parents’ relationship was far from typical and often violent, they understood the realities of their situation, eventually divorced, and moved on to other relationships. Pryor continued to have intermittent contact with his parents for the remainder of their lives.

Pryor had a traumatic childhood, being raised primarily by his grandmother and legal guardian Marie Carter, who was the madam of a local brothel on North Washington Street. Along with three other children, he experienced and witnessed the seamy lifestyles and poverty of that environment, and continued to be influenced by these factors and situations. In his 1995 autobiography Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences , Pryor said that he “lived in a neighborhood with a lot of whorehouses. Not many candy stores or banks. Liquor stores and whorehouses.” Despite the lifestyles of his immediate family, his grandmother tried to instill some discipline and values in the young Pryor by insisting he go to a local church.

Pryor was raped at the age of six by a teenaged neighbor, molested by a Catholic priest during catechism, and watched his mother perform sexual acts with the town mayor. Despite this abuse, he earned high marks at a Catholic grade school until he was expelled at age ten when his family’s occupations were discovered, and his mother abandoned him. Attending movies at the local theater became a way to escape the harsh realities of his life, even though he could only sit in the seats designated for African Americans. He fantasized that he was in the movies he was watching and developed an ambition to become an entertainer himself.

Chronology

1940

Born in Peoria, Illinois on December 1

1958

Leaves Peoria to join U.S. Army

1960

Returns to Peoria to work as local comedian

1963

Moves to New York seeking greater career opportunities

1964

Makes first national television appearance as comedian on the On Broadway Tonight program with Rudy Vallee

1967

Lands first movie role in The Busy Body

1969

Suffers a nervous breakdown during a show in Las Vegas

1970

Moves to northern California and takes a break from show business

1971

Returns to New York

1972

Showcases dramatic ability in Lady Sings the Blues , a film on the life of Billie Holiday

1974

Collaborates with Mel Brooks on the screenplay for Blazing Saddles; receives a Writers’ Guild Award and the American Academy of Humor Award for his contributions

1974–76

Wins three consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album

1977

Stars in first leading film role in Greased Lightning; suffers first heart attack

1980

Suffers severe burns after drug-related accident; endures a series of skin graft operations and grueling physical therapy; later establishes the Richard Pryor Burn Foundation to assist other burn victims

1983

Receives highest fee ever for black actor in single film, for Superman III

1986

Discovers symptoms of multiple sclerosis and other health problems

1990

Suffers second heart attack

1992

Performs new material before a sold-out audience at the Circle Star Theater near San Francisco, his first live concert appearance in almost six years; awarded the American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Honor

1995

Publishes his autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences

1996

Inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame

1997

Makes final film appearance in Lost Highway

1998

Becomes the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

2005

Dies at home in Encino, California on December 10

Begins Performing Career on Local Stage

At age twelve, Pryor was cast in a local production of the classic children’s tale Rumpelstiltskin by Juliette Whittaker, who was a supervisor at the Carver Community Center, a Peoria public recreation facility. Whittaker was so impressed by his performance and comic talent that she sought talent shows and other venues to showcase his ability and potential, and she continued to influence Pryor in the development of his career. In junior high school he was known for telling jokes and entertaining his teachers as well as classmates, but he did not do as well academically as he had in elementary school.

After being expelled from school for a petty offense at age fourteen, Pryor worked an assortment of odd jobs, including shining shoes, attending to billiard halls, and meat packing. Despite his young age, he also worked as a janitor in a local strip club, tried his hand at playing drums, and did some truck driving, with limited success. Pryor became a father for the first time, with the birth of his daughter, Renee, in 1957.

Develops Other Aspects of Talent

Pryor moved to northern California in 1970, continued his drug use and erratic behavior, but also gained new insight while taking a break from big-time show business. While living in the Berkeley area near San Francisco, he came in contact with several African American intellectuals and activists such as Ishmael Reed, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Claude Brown, and Al Young. Pryor also read the writings of Malcolm X and listened to message music such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On album. As a result, Pryor began to add an edge of biting political and social commentary to his comedic use of profanity while working in small Bay Area clubs. He was unafraid to use explosive racial epithets, before all types of audiences, in an effort to minimize their negative impact and turn them into terms of pride and defiance.

In 1971 he returned to New York, first to Harlem and the Apollo, then to the Improv comedy nightclub to present his new concepts as performance material for his first comedy film, Live and Smokin’ , and his second record album, Craps (After Hours) . His new focus extended into comedy writing for himself and other artists, and collaborating with another comedy legend, Mel Brooks, on the screenplay for Blazing Saddles , about a black sheriff in the Old West. The studio refused to cast Pryor in the lead role, but the film was still a hit with Cleavon Little as the sheriff.

Pryor demonstrated yet another facet of his talent with his critically acclaimed dramatic performance in Lady Sings the Blues , a 1972 film based on the life of jazz singer Billie Holiday, starring Diana Ross and produced by Berry Gordy of Motown Records fame. His role as Piano Man , a drug-addicted musician, proved to viewers that there was much more to Pryor’s ability than his gift for comedy.

Pryor also wrote for television shows such as Sanford and Son , starring Redd Foxx, and the Flip Wilson Show , and helped his fellow black comedians as they found great success in the early 1970s. His work as a writer as well as a performer on two 1973 TV specials featuring comedienne Lily Tomlin led to a Writers’ Guild Award, and he shared a 1974 Emmy Award for outstanding variety program writing with Tomlin and eleven other contributors. Remembering his Peoria roots, Pryor gave his Emmy to Juliette Whittaker and the Carver Center. Pryor won another Writers’ Guild Award and the American Academy of Humor Award in 1974 for his contributions to the Blazing Saddles screenplay.

During that year Pryor also teamed with Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Bill Cosby in the cast of another successful comedy film, Uptown Saturday Night . The film was a departure for Poitier and Belafonte, better known for more serious performances, yet the presence of Pryor and Cosby brought balance and guaranteed laughter during production and in the finished product viewed by the public.

Recognized as Comedian and Actor

By the middle of the 1970s, Pryor had become a household name and was considered by many “the funniest man alive.” He won Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album three years straight (1974 to 1976), while also accomplishing the amazing feat of five gold (500,000) and two platinum (1 million) copies sold among his nearly two dozen recordings. Pryor’s achievements took on additional significance in that his recordings did not feature music, just the man using a microphone in a studio or in front of a live audience.

Pryor also hired David Franklin, an African American attorney based in Atlanta, to provide legal counsel and serve as his agent in negotiating contracts and other business aspects of his career. Franklin helped Pryor through his numerous legal entanglements resulting from his personal as well as professional activities and assisted in his transition to superstar status in the entertainment world, but their business relationship became more strained in future years.

Makes Impact in Television and Film

In television, Pryor contributed to the early success of Saturday Night Live , the long-running NBC comedy show, appearing frequently during its first season in 1976 as a host and guest with original cast members John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, and others. He also appeared in three movies that year, including teaming with Gene Wilder for the comedy film Silver Streak , which became a major hit with the viewing public. During the next year his career as a film actor also blossomed, with leading roles as pioneer African American race car driver Wendell Scott in Greased Lightning , and portraying multiple characters in Which Way Is Up?

Pryor married for the third time in 1977, to Deborah McGuire, and starred briefly in his own TV series on NBC, The Richard Pryor Show . He challenged the status quo and censors from the opening segment of the first broadcast, in which he used a body stocking and visual/camera distortion to appear nude. The series was canceled after only five shows, but Pryor remained undaunted by this setback and continued his stage, film, and recording careers with great success. One setback was his first heart attack which he experienced on November 9, 1977, while in Peoria to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday.

In 1978 Pryor turned in another outstanding dramatic performance as Zeke, a Detroit auto worker, in the film Blue Collar , but overall Hollywood producers sought to restrict Pryor to supporting roles which softened his cutting-edge approach to life and humor. He continued his string of movie appearances that year, including his role as the title character in The Wiz , an African American remake of The Wizard of Oz . The production reunited Pryor with Diana Ross and also included Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, and a special appearance by the legendary Lena Horne. Despite the collection of superstar talent, the film met with mixed reviews and only moderate success.

His private life continued to reflect his hectic schedule, personal problems, and addictions, including his heavy use of cocaine. Pryor’s third marriage ended that year after a dangerous and highly publicized incident in which he fired a pistol at his wife, then “killed her car” with additional shots in the course of a heated argument.

He then began dating Jennifer Lee, who was at his side in Peoria when his grandmother died in December 1978. She stayed with Pryor through his subsequent depression, drug and sexual binges, detoxification, and therapy. After a psychiatrist recommended he change his behavior and surroundings, Pryor traveled with Lee to Kenya, where he decided to stop using racial epithets after observing the country’s racial diversity and harmony. Surprisingly, he received a backlash from some quarters for his decision and was accused of “going soft” because of his increasing fame, wealth, and relationship with Lee, a white woman.

Pryor’s greatest film success to that point came at the end of the decade, with Richard Pryor—Live in Concert in 1979. He came to full life on screen, as he carried the filming of his stage performance with numerous skits, characterizations, and impersonations, including his classic Mudbone character, who humorously and sensitively depicted life as experienced by alcoholics, addicts, hustlers, the homeless, and other persons generally considered as undesirables.

Nearly Dies after Drug Accident

While Pryor continued to abuse drugs, alcohol, and other intoxicants, cocaine had become his primary addiction. In the course of freebasing cocaine at his California home on June 9, 1980, Pryor set fire to himself, suffering third-degree burns over half of his body. Pryor’s Aunt Dee, who was visiting him, acted quickly to put out the flames, stabilized him after he ran out of his home while on fire and disoriented, and saved her nephew’s life.

The accident drew international publicity, given Pryor’s high visibility as an entertainer, and many thought he would not survive. Amazingly, Pryor endured a series of skin graft operations and grueling physical therapy and then turned his personal tragedy into positive action. In appreciation of the care he received from the Sherman Oaks Hospital Burn Center, he established the Richard Pryor Burn Foundation to assist other burn victims, and he did not hesitate to turn this experience into both comedy and commentary as part of his performances.

Makes More Movies and Money

The previously completed film Stir Crazy , which reunited Pryor with Gene Wilder, was released in December 1980 and earned over $100 million at the box office. Before the accident, Pryor had been working on Bustin’ Loose , a film with Cicely Tyson, the noted African American actress and former Academy Award nominee. With his clout as a major Hollywood star and producer of the film, Pryor included three children from Peoria selected by Juliette Whittaker as cast members in the production and continued to generously support her private school, The Learning Tree.

After his recovery from the accident, Pryor returned to complete the film in 1981. He also wed Jennifer Lee on August 16 of that year at his home in Hawaii, but his fourth marriage ended the next year, as he returned to cocaine and other self-destructive behavior. He became paranoid about his money, among other things, and sued David Franklin for mismanagement and misappropriation of funds in 1982. Franklin did not take this challenge seriously, but the California labor commissioner ruled in Pryor’s favor, ending their business relationship.

Despite his ongoing personal problems, Pryor also made what many critics and fans consider his best concert film, Richard Pryor—Live on the Sunset Strip . In his own inimitable fashion, he turned his near-death experience as well as his drug use, relationships, and other issues into hilarious comedy. This success proved to his fans and the general public, as well as to Hollywood executives, that he was not only a survivor but still “the funniest man alive” and now ready to continue his career. During that year he also directed himself in the movie Richard Pryor—Here and Now , and co-starred with legendary comedian Jackie Gleason in The Toy . While on a live performance tour, Pryor began yet another relationship, with twenty-year-old Flynn BeLaine, after meeting her in Washington, D.C.

Continues Film Career and Excessive Lifestyle

Pryor continued to be frequently cast in films during the rest of the 1980s, but his performances lacked the edge of his best earlier work. Poor scripts and parts were also a factor, but Pryor could still manage to make a film do well at the box office by his very presence. For the 1983 movie Superman III , he commanded a fee of $4 million, to that point the highest amount ever earned by a black actor for a single film. His appearance as a comic villain was disappointing, yet he made $1 million more than Christopher Reeve, the star of the film.

During the same year Pryor secured a $40 million deal with Columbia Pictures and established his own company, Indigo Productions, to develop entertainment projects showcasing his talents as an actor, producer, director, and writer. He hired former football star and actor Jim Brown to run the day-to-day operations but fired him before the year ended. Many observers in the African American and film communities were disappointed, as Pryor’s personal success did not translate into as many increased opportunities for other blacks in Hollywood as anticipated.

In 1984 Pryor developed a short-lived children’s show for television, Pryor’s Place , and received the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award. Around the same time as the award presentation he received news that Flynn BeLaine was pregnant with his child. Pryor became a father again, as his son Steven was born on November 16 of that year. He did not marry BeLaine at that time but still was required to provide large amounts of money in child support. Although Pryor made millions of dollars as an entertainer, he also spent millions to support his Hollywood lifestyle and its excesses, business associates, children from other marriages and relationships, and other family members, along with a variety of legal and other expenses.

Completes Film Version of Life Story

In 1986 Pryor co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling , an autobiographical film which was only moderately successful. Because so much of Pryor’s art was based on his life, many critics and viewers already knew much of his story, and a re-creation could not possibly top his real-life experiences. He also tried to defuse criticism of Indigo Productions by hiring a number of African Americans to work behind as well as in front of the camera, including longtime friend and collaborator Paul Mooney, but this did not have much impact on the overall employment of blacks in Hollywood.

In the summer of 1986 Pryor began experiencing symptoms of fatigue, sudden loss of muscle control, and noticeable weight loss. After extensive tests by his doctor and a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis (MS). While still a serious health problem, the medical findings helped put to rest worries and rumors that Pryor had contracted AIDS in the course of his philandering and drug abuse.

Pryor tried to carry on with his life and career as in the past but began to realize his mortality with the progression of the disease. On October 10, 1986, BeLaine became his fifth wife, but in January 1987 Pryor and BeLaine divorced after less than three months of marriage. This was in part because another son, Franklin Matthew Mason Pryor, had been born as a result of Pryor’s earlier affair with actress Geraldine Mason. BeLaine was also pregnant and gave birth to their daughter, Kelsey, later that year.

By 1988 a younger comedian/actor, Eddie Murphy, who had patterned much of his style on Pryor, was the new black superstar in Hollywood, and a younger generation of African American film artists emerged to challenge the mainstream film industry, including Spike Lee, John Singleton, Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and others. All of these artists, and many others, acknowledged the influence of Pryor on their development. Murphy recruited Pryor and Redd Foxx to appear with him in the 1989 film Harlem Nights , but the historic on-screen meeting of three generations of black comedians provided less humor than expected.

Tries to Continue Working as Health Fails

Pryor suffered another heart attack in March 1990 and eventually underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery in addition to living with the effects of MS. Determined not to give up, he continued doing “stand-up” comedy now sitting down at places like the Comedy Store nightclub in Los Angeles, the scene of many past triumphs. He also remarried Flynn BeLaine in April of that year, but they divorced again in 1991. By the time of his fiftieth birthday in December 1990, Pryor had appeared in over forty films, was past his prime as an entertainer and in ill health, yet he still made his best effort to continue his career.

On October 31, 1992, Pryor performed new material before a sold-out audience at the Circle Star Theater near San Francisco, his first live concert appearance in almost six years, using a walking cane for support. Encouraged by positive reviews, he tried to take his act on the road but had to cancel the tour after a few performances.

As Pryor came to grips with the end of his active performing career, he received a number of awards and recognition from peers in the entertainment industry. These included the American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Honor in 1992, several all-star tributes, and retrospectives of his many career highlights.

While he maintained contact with his ex-wives and children, Jennifer Lee became his primary companion and caretaker in 1994. The following year he co-wrote and published his autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences with Todd Gold, was inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1996, and in 1997 made his final film appearance with a small role in the David Lynch film, Lost Highway . In 1998 Pryor became the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Final Years

Even though his deteriorating health forced him into seclusion and the use of a wheelchair, Pryor responded to premature reports of his death through his official Internet web site. He also campaigned for animal welfare through letters and Christmas card messages and was honored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for his efforts.

In June 2001 Pryor and Lee re-married, and she continued to manage Pryor’s business affairs as well as tend to his personal and medical needs. They gained legal rights to much of Pryor’s earliest comedy work on small record labels, then edited and re-issued the recordings. A 2003 television documentary featured archival footage of Pryor performances, with commentary and testimonials from a number of comedians, and in 2004 the Comedy Central cable television channel named him the best stand-up comedian of all time. The same year the first Richard Pryor Ethnic Comedy Award was presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and a 2005 British poll voted him the tenth greatest comedy act ever.

On December 10, 2005, nine days after reaching age sixty-five, Pryor died of cardiac arrest at his home in Encino, California. His wife attempted to revive him without success but indicated later that his last days were peaceful, and at the end he was smiling. Black Entertainment Television aired a Richard Pryor special on December 19 in tribute, as his death was noted by major media outlets around the world.

Pryor’s last project was another film based on his life, co-written with his last wife. The comedian/actor Mike Epps was personally selected by Pryor to portray him, and the film, when completed, was intended to add to the legacy and legend of a man who exhibited the survival of the human spirit through tragedy with comedy and creativity.

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