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Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III (December 1, 1940 – December 10, 2005) was an Americanmarker comedian, actor, and writer. Pryor was known for uncompromising examinations of racism and topical contemporary issues, which employed colorful, vulgar, and profane language and racial epithets. He reached a broad audience with his trenchant observations and storytelling style. He is widely regarded as one of the most important stand-up comedians: Jerry Seinfeld called Pryor "The Picasso of our profession"; Bob Newhart has called Pryor "the seminal comedian of the last 50 years."

His body of work includes the concert movies and recordings Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin' (1971), That Nigger's Crazy (1974), ...Is It Something I Said? (1975), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), and Richard Pryor: Here and Now (1983). He also starred in numerous films as an actor, usually in comedies such as Silver Streak, but occasionally in dramatic roles, such as Paul Schrader's film Blue Collar. He collaborated on many projects with actor Gene Wilder. 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 in Peoria, Illinoismarker, Pryor grew up in Peoria in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother, Gertrude Leona (née Thomas), practiced prostitution. His father, LeRoy "Buck Carter" Pryor was a former bartender, boxer, and World War II veteran who worked as his wife's pimp. After his mother abandoned him when he was ten, he was raised primarily by his grandmother Marie Carter, a violent woman who would beat him for any of his eccentricities.

He was expelled from school at the age of 14. His first professional performance was playing drums at a night club. Pryor served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, but spent virtually the 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 and stabbed the white soldier, though not fatally. According to Live on Sunset Boulevard, when he was nineteen, he worked at a Mafia-owned nightclub as the MC. On hearing that they would not pay a stripper, he attempted to hold up the owners with a cap pistol. The owners, amazingly enough, thought he was joking and were greatly amused.

During this time, Pryor's girlfriend gave birth to a girl named Renee. Years later, however, he found out that she was not his child. In 1960, he married Patricia Price and they had one child together, Richard, Jr. (his first child and first son). They divorced in 1961.

In 1963, Pryor moved to New York Citymarker and began performing regularly in clubs alongside performers such as Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. On one of his first nights, he opened for singer and pianist Nina Simone at New York's Village Gatemarker. Simone recalls Pryor's bout of performance anxiety: It was these performances that gave him his nickname Ba-loot.

Inspired by Bill Cosby, Pryor began as a middlebrow comic, with material far less controversial than what was to come. Soon, he began appearing regularly on television variety shows, such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. His popularity led to success as a comic in Las Vegas. The first five tracks on the 2005 compilation CD Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years , 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 Hotelmarker in Las Vegas (with Dean Martin in the audience), looked at the sold-out crowd, exclaimed 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 nigger. His first comedy recording, the eponymous 1968 debut release on the Dove/Reprise label, captures this particular period, tracking the evolution of Pryor's routine. Around this time, his parents died—his mother in 1967 and his father in 1968.

In 1967, his second child and first daughter, Elizabeth Ann, was born to his girlfriend Maxine Anderson. Later that year, he married Shelly Bonus. In 1969, his third child and second daughter, Rain Pryor, was born. Pryor and Bonus divorced later that year.

Mainstream success

In 1969, Pryor moved to Berkeley, Californiamarker, 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-oriented independent record label Laff Records in 1970 and recorded his second album in 1971, Craps (After Hours). In 1973, the relatively unknown comedian appeared in the documentary Wattstax, where he riffed on the tragic-comic absurdities of race relations in Wattsmarker and the nation. Not long afterward, Pryor sought a deal with a larger label, and after some 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's release from his Laff contract. In return for this concession, Laff was enabled to release previously unissued material, recorded between 1968 and 1973, at will.

During the legal battle, Stax briefly closed its doors. At this time, Pryor returned to Reprise/Warner Bros. Records, which re-released That Nigger's Crazy, immediately after ...Is It Something I Said?, his first album with his new label. With every successful album Pryor recorded for Warner (or later, his concert films and his 1980 freebasing accident), Laff would quickly publish an album of older material to capitalize on Pryor's growing fame—a practice they continued until 1983. The covers of Laff albums tied in thematically with Pryor movies, such as The Wizard of Comedy for his appearance in The Wiz, Are You Serious? for Silver Streak, and Insane for Stir Crazy.

In the 1970s, Pryor 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. During this period, Pryor tried to break into mainstream television. He was a guest host on the first season of Saturday Night Live. Richard took long time girlfriend, actress-talk show host Kathrine McKee (sister of Lonette McKee) with him to New York, and she made a brief guest appearance with Pryor on SNL. His "racist word association" skit with Chevy Chase is frequently cited by TV critics as one of the funniest and most daring skits in SNL history.

The Richard Pryor Show premiered on NBC in 1977, but was canceled after only four shows. Television audiences didn't respond to the show's controversial subject matter, and Pryor was unwilling to alter his material for network censors. During the short-lived series, he portrayed the first African-American President of the United States, spoofed the Star Wars cantina, took on gun violence, and in another skit, used costumes and visual distortion to appear nude.

In 1974, Pryor was arrested for income tax evasion and served 10 days in jail. He married actress Deborah McGuire in 1977, but they divorced in 1978. He soon began dating Jennifer Lee and they married in 1981. They divorced the following year.

In 1979, at the height of his success, Pryor visited Africa. Upon returning to the United States, Pryor swore he would never use the word "nigger" in his stand-up comedy routine again. (However, his favorite epithet, "motherfucker", remains a term of endearment on his official website.)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Pryor appeared in several popular films, including Lady Sings the Blues; The Mack; Uptown Saturday Night; Silver Streak; Which Way Is Up?; Car Wash; Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings; Greased Lightning; Blue Collar & Bustin' Loose. In 1982, Pryor co-starred with Jackie Gleason in one of the "Great One"'s last projects, The Toy.

In 1983, Pryor signed a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures for $40,000,000. This resulted in the gentrification of Pryor's onscreen persona and softer, more formulaic films like Superman III, (which earned Pryor $4,000,000), Brewster's Millions, Stir Crazy, Moving, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The only film project from this period that recalled his rough roots was Pryor's semi-autobiographic debut as a writer-director, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, which was not a major success. Though he made four films with Gene Wilder, the two comic actors were never as close as many thought, according to Wilder's autobiography.

Pryor co-wrote Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks and starring Gene Wilder. Pryor was to play the lead role of Bart, but the film's production studio would not insure him, and Mel Brooks chose Cleavon Little instead. Before his infamous 1980 freebasing 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 won the part.

Despite a reputation for profanity, Pryor briefly hosted a children's show on CBS in 1984 called Pryor's Place. Like Sesame Street, Pryor's Place featured a cast of puppets, hanging out and having fun in a surprisingly friendly inner-city environment along with several children and characters portrayed by Pryor himself. However, Pryor's Place frequently dealt with more sobering issues than Sesame Street. It was canceled shortly after its debut, despite the efforts of famed puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft and a theme song by Ray Parker Jr of Ghostbusters fame.

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

Pryor developed a reputation for being difficult and unprofessional on film sets, and for making unreasonable demands. In his autobiography Kiss Me Like a Stranger, co-star Gene Wilder says that Pryor was frequently late to the set during filming of Stir Crazy, and that he demanded, among other things, a helicopter to fly him to and from set. Pryor was also accused of using allegations of on-set racism to force the hand of film producers into giving him more money. Also from Wilder's book:

Pryor was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1986.

The freebasing incident

On June 9, 1980, during the making of the film Bustin' Loose, Pryor set himself on fire after freebasing cocaine while drinking 151-proof rum. He ran down Parthenia St. from his Northridge, Californiamarker home until subdued by police. He was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for burns covering more than half of his body. Pryor spent six weeks in recovery at the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospitalmarker. Interviewed in 2005, his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor said that Pryor poured high-proof rum over his body and set himself on fire in a bout of drug-induced psychosis. His daughter, Rain Pryor also stated this in an interview in People Magazine.

Pryor incorporated a description of the incident into his "final" comedy show Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip in 1982. He joked that the event was caused by dunking a cookie into a glass of low-fat and pasteurized milk, causing an explosion. At the end of the bit, he 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."

After his "final performance", Pryor did not stay away from stand-up comedy long. In 1983 he filmed and released a new concert film and accompanying album, Richard Pryor: 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 1984, his fourth child and second son, Steven, was born to his girlfriend Flynn Belaine. Pryor married Belaine in October 1986. They divorced in July 1987. Before their divorce was final, Belaine conceived Kelsey Pryor. Meanwhile, another of Pryor's girlfriends, Geraldine Mason, gave birth to Franklin Mason, his fifth child and third son, in April 1987. Six months later in October of 1987, Belaine gave birth to Kelsey Pryor, Richard's sixth child and third daughter.


Pryor was married seven times to five different women:
  1. Patricia Price (1960–1961) (divorced) with 1 child named Richard Pryor, Jr.
  2. Shelly Bonus (1967–1969) (divorced) with 1 child named Rain Pryor
  3. Deborah McGuire (September 22, 1977 – 1979) (divorced)
  4. Jennifer Lee (August 1978 – October 1982) (divorced)
  5. Flynn Belaine (October 1986 – July 1987) (divorced) with 1 child
  6. Flynn Belaine (1 April 1990 - July 1991) (divorced) with 1 child
  7. Jennifer Lee (29 June 2001 – 10 December 2005) (his death)
His marriages were characterized by accusations of domestic violence and spousal abuse, except for his relationship with Belaine. Most of these allegations were connected to Pryor's drug use. The exception was Patricia Price who was married to Pryor before his rise to stardom. Deborah McGuire accused him of shooting her car with a .357 Magnum , but later dropped the charges (even though Pryor mentioned the incident in Live in Concert). Lee accused him of beating and attempting to strangle her during their first marriage , and did not share his home after they remarried. During his relationship with Pam Grier, Pryor proposed to Deborah McGuire (1977).

He had six children: Richard Jr., Elizabeth, Rain, Steven, Franklin and Kelsey.

Later life

In 1998, Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Artsmarker. According to Former Kennedy Center President Lawrence J. Wilker,

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

In 2001, he remarried Jennifer Lee, who also had become his manager.

In 2002 a television documentary depicted Pryor's life and career. Broadcast in the UK as part of the Channel 4 series Kings of Black Comedy, it was produced, directed and narrated by David Upshal. It featured rare clips from Pryor's 1960s stand-up appearances and movies such as Silver Streak, Blue Collar, Stir Crazy, and Richard Pryor Live In Concert. Contributors included Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Chappelle, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Ice-T, and Paul Mooney. The show tracked down the two cops who rescued Pryor from his "freebasing incident", former managers and even school friends from Pryor's home town of Peoria, Illinois. In the US the show went out as part of the Heroes Of Black Comedy series on Comedy Central, narrated by Don Cheadle.

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

A 2003 television documentary, Richard Pryor: I Ain't Dead Yet, #*%$#@!! consisted of archival footage of Pryor's performances and testimonials from fellow comedians, including Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, and Denis Leary, on Pryor's influence on comedy.

In 2004, Pryor was voted #1 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time. In a 2005 Britishmarker 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 used an Amigo POV/scooter due to multiple sclerosis (M.S., which he said stood for "More Shit"). In late 2004, his sister said he had lost his voice. However, on January 9, 2005, Pryor's wife, Jennifer Lee, rebutted this statement in a post on Pryor's official website, citing Richard as saying: "Sick of hearing this shit about me not talking... not true... good days, bad days... but I still am a talkin' motherfucker!"

Pryor was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. The animal rights organization PETA gives out an award in Pryor's name to people who have done outstanding work to alleviate animal suffering. Pryor was active in animal rights and was deeply concerned about the plight of elephants in circuses and zoos.


On December 10, 2005, Pryor suffered a cardiac arrest in Encino, Californiamarker. He was brought to a local hospital after his wife's attempts to resuscitate him failed. He was pronounced dead at 7:58 AM PST. His widow Jennifer was quoted as saying, "At the end, there was a smile on his face."He was cremated and his ashes were given to friends and family.

Remembrance and legacy

On December 19, 2005, BET aired a Pryor special. It included commentary from fellow comedians, and insight into his upbringing. A feature film about Pryor is currently in development. It was written by Pryor and his wife. Marlon Wayans is in line to portray Pryor after Eddie Murphy dropped out due to a dispute with the studio. Bill Condon is set to direct.

An image of Pryor can be seen on the Rage Against The Machine music video for their Soul Sonic Force cover of "Renegades of Funk".

In a scene in the movie Superbad, the character Seth is seen wearing a Richard Pryor t-shirt.

There is a street just west of the downtown Peoria area named in his honor.

On March 1, 2008, fellow comedian George Carlin performed his final HBO special. An image of Pryor can be seen in the background throughout his set.






  1. - Those we lost - December 28, 2005
  2. American Masters . Bob Newhart PBS
  3. Richard Pryor website
  4. [1]
  5. Hilton Als, "A Pryor Love", The New Yorker, September 13, 1999.
  7. The word 'Nigger' - Richard Pryor & George Carlin YouTube
  8. Comedian Richard Pryor dead at 65 BBC News
  10. Interview with Rain Pryor, November 6, 2006 edition of People Magazine, page 76.
  11. Richard Pryor

External links

  • "Comedian Richard Pryor dead at 65." BBC News. 10 December 2005. BBC. [32173].
  • "Comedian Richard Pryor dies at 65." 11 December 2005. CNN. [32174].
  • Feeney, Mark. "Richard Pryor, whose profane, incisive humor revolutionized American comedy, dies at 65." News. 11 December 2005. Boston Globe. [32175].
  • Schudel, Matt. "With Humor and Anger On Race Issues, Comic Inspired a Generation." 11 December 2005. The Washington Post. [32176].
  • Watkins, Mel. "Richard Pryor, Iconoclastic Comedian, Dies at 65." 11 December 2005. New York Times. [32177].

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