On this day in comedy on December 1, 1940, Comedian, Actor, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor was born in Peoria, Illinois
Known universally as the greatest comedian of the 20th Century, Richard Pryor’s road to success was decidedly unconventional. Raised in a brothel and constantly abused both physically and mentally, the young man delved into self-expression as an escape from the realities of his sordid life. However, his violent upbringing followed him. While in the Army Pryor was part of a mob of black soldiers who beat and stabbed a white soldier for laughing too hard at a section of the film, Imitation of Life. That act put him behind bars for most of his military stint.
Once free from the stranglehold of Uncle Sam, Pryor relocated in New York and began his career. It was a shaky start to say the least. He was opening for singer Nina Simone and shook so much from stage fright that the songstress had to hold him and rock him back and forth until he calmed down. She found herself doing this every night he performed.
Initially Richard Pryor was not the firebrand the public came to love. He was a Bill Cosby clone . . . comedy-wise. He dressed like Cos, talked like him, walked like him, and had similar facial expressions and themes in material. They even did the same TV shows until the day Cosby told Pryor (who was a friend) that he had to stop imitating him. Pryor response was something to the effect of “I’m making a lot of money acting like you so I’m going to keep doing it.” That attitude lasted until Pryor played the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, a town known for artistic restriction. Pryor had finally had enough of being like his watered-down colleague and in 1967 he walked off the stage in the middle of his show. But before he made his exit, legend has it that Pryor stripped naked, ran into the gaming room, jumped on the table and yelled, “Blackjack!” At least that’s the legend.
In any case, the new Pryor had to be cultivated and so he went to Northern California. Pryor honed his personalized persona in front of Oakland and Berkeley audiences consisting of hoes, pimps, drug dealers and gangsters. His was talking the language of the people to the people and they loved it. He was cursing and talking about race and social issues. He spoke the lingo of the streets and before long the industry took notice.
Pryor signed with Laff Records and recorded the seminal Craps After Dark. That raw edged comedy classic led to a deal with Stax records for more money and larger distribution. He laid his hit That Nigger’s Crazy. His name was now on everybody’s lips as he jumped over to Reprise/ Warner Bros. At this point Pryor was a comic’s comic and despite breaching his contract with Laff (which they settled to their mutual benefit) Pryor went on to make a succession of popular albums: Is it Something I Said? Bicentennial Nigger, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip and Richard Pryor: Here and Now.
Pryor was on a roll. He won an Emmy for writing and five Grammys for his albums as well as box office recognition for films such as Lady Sings the Blues, The Mack, Car Wash, Which Way Is Up, Blue Collar, Greased Lightning, Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, Superman III and many more. He was so much in demand that NBC gave him his own sketch show. It lasted for only 4 episodes. Pryor was too raw for TV.
Pryor also had problems. The problem was a he had a drug problem. It seemed to be there weren’t enough drugs to keep him happy. A known cocaine addict, Pryor began a rapid decent when he dabbled with freebasing. Smoking coke in its purest form cost Pryor the lead in 48 Hours and Trading Places. They went to Eddie Murphy, who indirectly owes his career to drugs. Pryor owed the decline of his career to them too.
Then things really hit the skids. Pryor lit himself on fire during a freebase session. This landed him in the hospital and on every news outlet. He recovered after multiple operations, but was never the same. The man who was the first to win the Mark Twain Humor Award was just a shell of his former self. He contracted multiple sclerosis and was restricted to a wheelchair. With close friend and personal writer, Paul Mooney as his support system, Pryor continued to perform, but the audiences were more there to see the last gasp of glory.
That gasp occurred on December 10, 2005 – ten days after the great man’s 65th birthday. He did something most never imagined. Richard Pryor retired at the mandatory retirement age; perhaps the only conventional thing he ever did in his life.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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