Highly influential, and always controversial, African-American actor/comedian who was equally well known for his colorful language during his live comedy shows, as for his fast paced life, multiple marriages and battles with drug addiction. He has been acknowledged by many modern comic artist’s as a key influence on their careers, and Pryor’s observational humor on African-American life in the USA during the 1970s was razor sharp brilliance.
He was born Richard Franklin Lennox Pryor III on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois, the son of Gertrude L. (Thomas) and LeRoy “Buck Carter” Pryor. His mother, a prostitute, abandoned him when he was ten years of age, after which he was raised in his grandmother’s brothel. Unfortunately, Pryor was molested at the age of six by a teenage neighbor, and later by a neighborhood preacher. To escape this troubled life, the young Pryor was an avid movie fan and a regular visitor to local movie theaters in Peoria. After numerous jobs, including truck driver and meat packer, the young Pryor did a stint in the US Army between 1958 & 1960 in which he performed in amateur theater shows. After he left the services in 1960, Pryor started singing in small clubs, but inadvertently found that humor was his real forte.
Pryor spent time in both New York & Las Vegas, honing his comic craft. However, his unconventional approach to humor sometimes made bookings difficult to come by and this eventually saw Pryor heading to Los Angeles. He first broke into films with minor roles in The Busy Body (1967) and Wild in the Streets (1968). However, his performance as a drug addicted piano player in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), really got the attention of fans and film critics alike.
He made his first appearance with Gene Wilder in the very popular action/comedy Silver Streak (1976), played three different characters in Which Way Is Up? (1977) and portrayed real-life stock-car driver “Wendell Scott” in Greased Lightning (1977). Proving he was more than just a comedian, Pryor wowed audiences as a disenchanted auto worker who is seduced into betraying his friends and easy money in the Paul Schrader working class drama Blue Collar (1978), also starring Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel. Always a strong advocate of African-American talent, Pryor next took a key role in The Wiz (1978), starring an all African-American cast, including Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, retelling the story of The Wizard of Oz (1939). His next four screen roles were primarily cameos in California Suite (1978); The Muppet Movie (1979); Wholly Moses! (1980) and In God We Trust (or Gimme That Prime Time Religion) (1980). However, Pryor teamed up with Gene Wilder once more for the prison comedy Stir Crazy (1980), which did strong box office business.
His next few films were a mixed bag of material, often inhibiting Pryor’s talent, with equally mixed returns at the box office. Pryor then scored second billing to Christopher Reeve in the big budget Superman III (1983), and starred alongside fellow funny man John Candy in Brewster’s Millions (1985) before revealing his inner self in the autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986). Again, Pryor was somewhat hampered by poor material in his following film ventures. However, he did turn up again in See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) with Gene Wilder, but the final product was not as sharp as their previous pairings. Pryor then partnered on-screen with two other very popular African-American comic’s. The legendary Redd Foxx and 1980s comic newcomer Eddie Murphy starred with Pryor in the gangster film Harlem Nights (1989) which was also directed by Eddie Murphy. Having contracted multiple sclerosis in 1986, Pryor’s remaining film appearances were primarily cameos apart from his fourth and final outing with Gene Wilder in the lukewarm Another You (1991), and his final appearance in a film production was a small role in the David Lynch road flick Lost Highway (1997).
Fans of this outrageous comic genius are encouraged to see his live specials Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin’ (1971); the dynamic Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979); Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) and Richard Pryor… Here and Now (1983). In addition, The Richard Pryor Show (1977) is a must-have for any Richard Pryor fans’ DVD collection.
Unknown to many, Pryor was a long time advocate against animal cruelty, and he campaigned against fast food chains and circus shows to address issues of animal welfare. He was married a total of seven times, and fathered eight children.
After long battles with ill health, Richard Pryor passed away on December 10th, 2005.
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