PRYOR, RICHARD

U.S. Comedian/Actor

Richard Pryor, comic, writer, television and film star was the first African American stand-up comedian to speak candidly and successfully to integrated audiences using the language and jokes blacks previously only shared among themselves when they were most critical of America. His career really began when, as a high school student, his teacher persuaded him to discontinue cutting and disrupting class with the opportunity to perform his comic routine once a week for his classmates. Nevertheless, Pryor dropped out of high school, completed a tour of duty in the army, then began his playing small clubs and bars, anywhere he could secure a venue. His keen and perceptive observation of people, especially his audiences, enabled him to develop into a gifted monologist, mimic, and mime.

The first phase of his career began in the 1960s, when as a clean-cut imitation of Bill Cosby, Pryor played New York clubs. His material, best suited for an integrated audience, did not contain the cutting edge dialogue for which later became most noted. By 1970, tired of the constant comparisons to Cosby and feeling disgusted with himself for the direction of his career, he walked off the Las Vegas Aladdin Hotel Stage in the middle of a performance. After a two year hiatus in Berkeley where he spent time reading Malcolm X's work, visiting bars, clubs and street corners to observe people, and collaborating with a group of African American writers later known as the "Black Pack," Pryor returned to performing. A metamorphosis took place during those two years and Pryor offered his audiences a new collection of characters, earthy metaphors, and the tough, rough profane language of the streets. No longer did he mimic Cosby, for he now spoke on behalf of the underclass and his monologues and jokes reflected their despair and disillusionment with life in America.

His performances, enhanced by his use of body language, captured the personalities of the numerous black characters he created to ridicule and comment upon the circumstances under which African Americans lived. It was revolutionary humor. Pryor's characters introduced to his audiences persons from black folklore as well as characters from the streets of Anytown, U.S.A. He integrated his personal style of comedy with commentary on the social condition. His popularity skyrocketed and his career as a stand-up comedian expanded to that of a television and film star.

The Richard Pryor Show premiered on NBC in 1977 and rocked the censors until, only after five shows, the series was canceled. Television was not ready for his explosive talent and Pryor was not ready to alter the content of his program. He portrayed the first African-American president of the United States and in another skit, used costumes end visual distortion to appear nude. Simultaneously, his concert films, full of his impersonations, cockiness, and assertiveness, and balanced by his perceptive vulnerability achieved wide audience appeal and became legendary in their content. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), considered by critics one of his best concert films and his first concert released to theaters, showcased Pryor and his unique ability to capture ethnic humor and make it acceptable to a mainstream audience. Pryor appeared on numerous television programs and served as a co-writer for Blazing Saddles and a writer for Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show and The Lily Tomlin Special for which he won an Emmy in 1974.

Even though his early movie roles are forgettable, film served as another venue for Pryor's dangerous and uncontrollable personality. Lady Sings the Blues was the turning point. As the Piano Man, Pryor proved he was capable of sustaining a supporting role in a dramatic film. He added life and vitality to the role and to the film. After Lady Sings the Blues, he starred or co-starred in The Mack (1973), Hit (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Car Wash (1976), The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and MotorKings (1976), and Silver Streak(1976). Co-starring In Silver Streak served as another breakthrough for Pryor and he soon received starring roles in Which Way is Up? (1977) and Greased Lightning (1977) among others. His record albums, full of his special humor and street wise characters, topped the charts; That Nigger's Crazy (1974), Is It Something I Said (1975), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), Wanted, Richard Pryor Live and in Concert (1979).

In 1980 Pryor received third degree burns over most of his body while, it was reported, he was freebasing cocaine. The response to this tragedy was overwhelming and Pryor received attention from the media as well as from citizens throughout the United States. He returned to the large screen to complete Bustin' Loose, then went on to receive rave reviews for his concert films, Richard Pryor: Live on Sunset Strip(1982) and Richard Pryor: Hear and Now (1983). The autobiographical film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) offered his audiences some insight into his troubled personal life.

After his accident Pryor's other star movies did not portray the comic as the dynamic, controversial storyteller he became after his exile in Berkeley. The roles in his latter films presented a meeker more timid person and in The Toy (1982), he literally played the toy for a spoiled white child. This character and his dialogue were a far cry from the Pryor persona most admired by his audiences.

Stricken with Multiple Sclerosis in the 1990s Pryor appeared on television talk shows and toured infrequently. He still played to sold out audiences, but the old fire and cutting edge rhetoric evident in his monologues of the 1970s was missing. Pryor in the 1970s would never allow a heckler to intrude on his story and ruin his timing. The Pryor of the 1990s, weak and deeply affected by his disease, did not give the quick, biting and sarcastic comeback that would always silence a brave heckler from the audience.

Richard Pryor and his comic style emancipated African-American humor and his influence and ascendancy crushed boundaries and opened frontiers in comedy unheard of until he appeared on the concert stage. A testament to his influence was evident in a September 1991 televised gala tribute to Pryor presented by comic stars.

-Bishetta D. Merrit


Richard Pryor

RICHARD PRYOR. Born Franklin Lenox Thomas in Peoria, Illinois, 1 December 1940. Married numerous times; children: Elizabeth Ann, Richard, Rain, Renee. Served in the U.S. Army, 1958-60. Began career as a stand-up comic in the 1960s; recorded hit comedy album, 1974; co-wrote and starred in motion pictures, since 1974; star of television's The Richard Pryor Show, 1977. Member: National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; Writers Guild of America. Recipient: Emmy Award, 1973; two American Academy of Humor Awards, 1974; American Writers Guild Award, 1974; Grammy Awards, 1974, 1976.

TELEVISION

1973 The Lily Tomlin Special (co-writer)
1977 The Richard Pryor Show (writer, star)
1984-85 Pryor's Place

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1973 The Lily Tomlin Show (guest)
1973 Lily (guest)
1977 The Richard Pryor Special
1982 The Richard Pryor Special
1982 Hollywood: The Gift of Laughter (co-host)
1993 The Apollo Hall of Fame (honoree)

FILMS (selection)

The Busy Body, 1967; The Green Berets, 1968; Wild in the Streets, 1968; The Phynx, 1970; Dynamite Chicken, 1970; Lady Sings the Blues, 1972; Hit, 1973; Wattstax, 1973; The Mack, 1973; Some Call It Loving, 1973; Blazing Saddles (co-writer only), 1974; Adios Amigos (also writer), 1976; Car Wash (also writer), 1977; Silver Streak (also writer), 1976; Greased Lightning, 1977; Which Way Is Up?, 1977; Blue Collar (also writer), 1978; The Wiz, 1978; Wholly Moses, 1980; In God We Trust, 1980; Stir Crazy (also writer), 1980; Bustin' Loose (also producer), 1981; Live on Sunset Strip, 1982; Some Kind of Hero, 1982; The Toy (also director), 1982; Superman III, 1983; Brewster's Millions, 1985; Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (also writer, producer, director), 1986; Critical Condition, 1987; Moving, 1988; See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 1989; Harlem Nights, 1989; Another You, 1991.

RECORDINGS

That Nigger's Crazy, 1974; Is It Something I Said, 1975; Bicentennial Nigger, 1976; Wanted, Richard Pryor Live and in Concert, 1979.

PUBLICATION

Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences, with Todd Gold. New York: Pantheon, 1995.