Richard Pryor was born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois. He was an outstanding comedian who became one of the best entertainers in the ‘70s and ’80s. Pryor had a rough start while growing up. His mother was a prostitute and his father worked as a bartender and a boxer who served as a soldier during the Second World War. His father married his mother when he was 3 years old, but the marriage didn’t last.
Pryor spent most of his youthful life with his grandmother and they were living in the brothel she ran. He was also a victim of sexual abuse as a child. To do away with the unpleasant reality of his life, Pryor found solace in watching movies.
Pryor always plays the role of the class clown at school. He discovered his acting talent in his early teens. As a natural performer, he was cast by Juliette Whittaker, the director of a local community center in the film production of Rumpelstiltskin. She saw the potential in him and encouraged him all through the years.
Pryor was expelled from school at the age of 14, so he did a string of jobs until in 1958 when he joined the army. He served the military for just two years. He got discharged from the military for fighting another soldier.
In the year 1960, Pryor married Patricia Price upon his return home. The couple had only one child together before they divorced. After the divorce, Pryor started his career pursuit as an entertainer. He began to perform as a comic all over the Midwest, playing in black clubs in cities like Pittsburgh and East St. Louis.
In the year 1963, Pryor relocated to New York City. During the following year, he had his TV debut on the variety show called “On Broadway Tonight”. He had a guest appearance on such programs as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Merv Griffin Show. At that period, his comedy act was modeled after two black comedians he admired the most, Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby.
In the year 1970, Pryor had several successes as a comedian and an actor. In 1972, He earned many positive reviews for his supporting part in the Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings the Blues”. The film starred Diana Ross. In 1973, he won his first Emmy Award nomination in the category of “Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy, Variety”, with his work on “The Lily Tomlin Show”. In the next coming year, Pryor also took home another Emmy in the category of “Best Writing in Comedy, Variety” with his collaboration with Lily Tomlin on the special comedy “Lily”. Pryor was writing for shows like Sanford and Son and The Flip Wilson Show, starring comedian Redd Foxx.
In 1974, as Pryor continued to succeed in his profession, he worked with Mel Brooks on the screenplay role for the western spoof called “Blazing Saddles “. His writing work was also attracting a lot of interest and attention. Despite the fact that his content was x-rated, his third album released on comedy sold very well. He won the Grammy Award in the category of “Best Comedy Recording” in 1974. This feat was repeated in the next two years.
Fans from different racial backgrounds were captivated by Pryor’s outstanding comedy, which consisted of a character-driven and situational humor in place of simple and straightforward jokes. He explored the racial divide and poked fun at the white establishment. In one bit, Pryor gave a description of how different the horror movie “The Exorcist” would be, had it been it featured a black family instead of a white one.
Pryor had a thriving career in late 1970 as an actor. He starred in Silver Streak, the box office hit, with Jill Clayburgh and Gene Wilder. Pryor played the first African-American champion on car racing stock in Greased Lightning with Pam Grier and Beau Bridges.
Off stage and off screen, Pryor had a long history of stormy relationships and substance abuse. In the early 1970s, he got into legal trouble for his failure in filing tax returns from 1967 to 1970. In the year 1978, Pryor had another legal issue after he shot the car of his estranged wife. He was put on probation, and ordered to make restitution and get psychiatric treatment.
Pryor’s health started deteriorating, and he had his first heart attack in the year 1978. After suffering the health crisis, Pryor began work on what most of his critics considered to be his best performance. The movie “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” in 1979, garnered much praise and sold out lots of urban movie theaters. Pryor went to Kenya that year, and later on, he announced that he will stop using the n-word in his act.
Pryor collaborated again with Gene Wilder for his comedy on popular crime called “Stir Crazy” in 1980. The movie was directed by Sidney Poitier. It became the box office big hit, earning over $100 million.
However, Pryor’s use of drug spiraled out of control. In June 1980, after free-basing with cocaine for several days, he attempted suicide by lighting himself on fire. It was previously reported that the act was not willful, but afterward, he agreed in his autobiography that he took the action out of purpose in a drug haze. He sustained third-degree burns all over his body.
After his lengthy period of recovery, Pryor returned back to acting and stand-up comedy. He was successful and a two additional Grammy Award in the category of “Best Comedy Recording”( in 1981 and 1982). In that same year, he also released “Live on the Sunset Strip” as a concert film. Pryor starred in various movies, including “The Toy (1982)” with Jackie Gleason and “Some Kind of Hero (1982)” with Margo Kidder.
In the year 1983, Pryor became one of the most expensive African-American actors at that present time. He earned $4 million to play the role of an evil henchman in the movie “Superman III”. He earned more than Christopher Reeve, the film’s star.
In the year 1986, Pryor had a health issue and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This is an ailment that affects the central nervous system. He tried to remain active, and starred in the film “Critical Condition” (1987), Harlem Nights (1989), and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) with Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy. In the early 90s, Pryor was confined to a wheelchair. Still, he never allowed his health condition to bring him down, so he kept acting and performing stand-up comedy. His last movie appearance was in the film “David Lynch’s Lost Highway” in 1997.
Pryor was the first entertainer to earn the Mark Twain Prize in 1998 for American Humor from the Kennedy Center.
In the year 2001, Pryor remarried Jennifer Lee (all through his lifetime, he got married and divorced more than four times). He spent his last years with her at his home in California.
In the year 2005, Pryor died of a heart attack at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was the one that paved way for black comedians like Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy to make their mark.
Below Richard Pryor on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.