Born on December 1, 1940 to a prostitute in Peoria, Illinois, Richard Pryor was originally named Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor. His mother worked for his grandmother who owned a string of brothels in the area. While his family tried to instill church-going values in him, he was raised in a series of whorehouses so the contradictory lifestyles obviously caused him difficulty as a child.
"There's a thin line between to 'laugh with' and to 'laugh at'." - Richard Pryor
During his junior high school years Pryor caused much trouble in his classes - so much so that one of his teachers agreed to let him "perform" once per week in trade for his good behavior the rest of the time. His drama teacher noticed his talent and began to help him hone it, but he dropped out of school in the 9th grade. After some youthful rabble-rousing and a short enlistment in the US Army, Pryor headed to New York City in 1963. For several years he tried his hand at comedy, and was lucky enough to land some bit parts in a few movies. He was relatively unsuccessful with his non-political and raceless humor inspired by Bill Cosby. Tired of the direction his life was headed, he actually walked off the stage during a performance in Las Vegas in 1970.
"There is a raw wildness in Pryor that is close to genius, more in his live, improvisational work than in any 'set' movie... Pryor is the jazziest of comics." -David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film
In the early 1970's Pryor moved to Berkeley and started hanging out with some writers who included Ishmael Reed, Cecil Brown and David Henderson (a.k.a., the Black Pack). He also started reading the works of Malcolm X and doing a lot of people watching. Through these influences (and very likely through the influence of several other things Berkeley is famous for) he began to develop a new comedic style which included the experiences of his childhood and his black tradition. Pryor soon returned to his performance career which quickly became kinetic, explicit, scatological, and free form. He did impressions, contorted his face and body and talked about life on the street, drugs, sex, and other controversial topics. His jokes reflected his roots and appealed to the underclass and their way of life. Regardless of the content, Pryor had a knack for creating ethnic humor that was acceptable to the mainstream audience. His record company was concerned that his newest album, That Nigger's Crazy!, wouldn't sell well outside of the black community. They were wrong - his popularity increased exponentially.
"What I'm saying might be profane, but it's also profound." - Richard Pryor
With his new success, he released several stand-up albums. He made guest appearances on several popular TV series, and began writing for movies and television shows including Blazing Saddles and Sanford and Son. He won an Emmy in 1974 for his comedic writing on The Lily Tomlin Special. He continued to write and star in movies, and release chart topping albums through the 70s. He was even successful playing the Piano Man in the drama, Lady Sings the Blues. In 1977, NBC premiered his new TV series, The Richard Pryor Show. Unfortunately, television was not quite as liberal as it is today, and it was shut down after just five shows because of the difficulty the network had censoring the content. Soon after that in 1979, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert was released in theaters, and was considered some of his best material ever.
"When you're on fire people get out of your way!" - Richard Pryor
Unfortunately with his success, Pryor was also a heavy drinker and drug user. This fact came into the public eye in 1980 when he received third-degree burns over most of his body after dousing himself with cognac and lighting himself on fire after freebasing some cocaine. Following this incident, his popularity waned somewhat, and he had several failed marriages under his belt. Through it all, he still continued to release albums and star in numerous movies. He also tried his hand at directing and producing.
"Marriage is really tough because you have to deal with feelings... and lawyers." - Richard Pryor
In the 1990s, the once vibrant comedian was stricken with multiple sclerosis. He still continued his work and played to sold out audiences, but his performances were lacking, and his mind did not seem to work as quickly as it once had. Later in the 90s Pryor started using a wheelchair. He has had three heart attacks and undergone quadruple bypass surgery.
"Any comic who ain't stole from Richard ain't funny." - Damon Wayans
The comedic writing of Richard Pryor was some of the most ground-breaking in the history of entertainment. His streetwise social commentary ignored the censors and paved the way for numerous other comedians such as Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle, and more. It's a shame he was stricken during his prime.
Richard Pryor died of a heart attack on on Saturday, December 10, 2005 at the age of 65.