Today’s Comedian is the Legendary Richard Pryor.
Richard Pryor Biography
Actor, Comedian, Screenwriter (1940–2005)
Richard Pryor was a groundbreaking African-American comedian and one of the top entertainers of the 1970s and ’80s.
Richard Pryor was born on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois. A class clown in school and a community theater actor in his teens, Pryor became a successful stand-up comedian, television writer and movie actor, starring in films like Stir Crazy and Greased Lightning. Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, but continued to perform for several more years. He died of a heart attack in 2005.
Early Comedy Career
Upon his return home, Pryor married Patricia Price in 1960. The couple had one child together before divorcing. After ending his marriage, Pryor pursued a career as an entertainer. He found work as a comic throughout the Midwest, playing African American clubs in such cities as East St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
In 1963, Pryor moved to New York City. The following year, he made his television debut on the variety show On Broadway Tonight. More guest appearances followed on such shows as The Merv Griffin Show and the Ed Sullivan Show. At the time, his act was modeled after two African American comedians he admired, Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory.
By the late 1960s, Pryor had landed a few small parts on the big screen, appearing in The Busy Body (1967) and Wild in the Streets (1968). He also released his first self-titled comedy album around this time. Pryor even gave marriage another try—he wed Shelly Bonus in 1967. (The couple had one child together—a daughter named Elizabeth—before divorcing in 1969.)
Pryor toured extensively, doing his stand-up act. Playing Las Vegas, he served as Bobby Darin’s opening act at the Flamingo Hotel for a time. He reached an interesting career turning point while playing at the Aladdin in the late 1960s. Tired of the constraints and limitations on his material, Pryor walked off stage and took a break from stand up. He retreated to Berkeley, California, where he met a variety of counterculture figures, including Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton.
In the early 1970s, Pryor scored several successes as an actor and comedian. He earned positive reviews for his supporting role in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues (1972) starring Diana Ross. In 1973, he netted his first Emmy Award nomination (outstanding writing achievement in comedy, variety) for his work on The Lily Tomlin Show. The following year, Pryor took home his first Emmy (best writing in comedy, variety) for another collaboration with Lily Tomlin: the comedy special Lily (1973). Pryor also wrote for such shows as The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son, which starred comedian Redd Foxx.
Continuing to thrive professionally, Pryor worked with Mel Brooks on the screenplay for western spoof Blazin’ Saddles (1974). His own work was also attracting a lot of attention. Despite its X-rated content, his third comedy album sold extremely well and the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording in 1974—a feat that he repeated over the next two years.
Comedy fans—of all racial backgrounds—were captivated by Pryor’s comedy, which consisted of situational and character-driven humor—not straightforward jokes. He poked fun at the white establishment and explored the racial divide. In one bit, Pryor describes how differently the horror film The Exorcist would have been if it had featured an African American family instead of a white one. Another routine about Muhammad Ali covered how white people never gave Ali enough credit as a fighter.
By the late 1970s, Pryor had a thriving career as an actor. He starred in the box office hit Silver Streak (1976) with Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh. Pryor went on to play the first African American stock car racing champion in Greased Lightning (1977) with Beau Bridges and Pam Grier.