Richard Pryor



Biography



Richard Pryor statement: "I feel great about accepting this prize. It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man – now that’s funny! Seriously, though, two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred!"

Richard Pryor, born December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, is an especially apt choice for the first Kennedy Center Mark Twain Humor Prize. His irreverent comedic style shares with Twain the very attributes that made his work so attractive to everyone, regardless of age Pryor grew up in straightened circumstances, both morally and economically. His grandparents ran both a brothel and a pool hall. Juliette Whittaker, a supervisor at a local public recreational facility, cast him in a local production of Rumpelstiltskin, and impressed by his talents, continued to arrange showcases just for the young Pryor. He dropped out of high school, joined the Army and performed in amateur shows while enlisted. After discharge he returned home and, with the continuing help of Whittaker, worked as a professional comic in clubs in his hometown and other cities.

Inspired by Bill Cosby, Pryor found club work in New York. Three years later (in 1966) Pryor began appearing on summer television shows such as Rudy Vallee’s "On Broadway Tonight" and the Kraft Summer Music Hall." After Ed Sullivan presented him, demand for Pryor extended to Las Vegas where he soon found that his hip, controversial style didn’t work well. Pryor turned to films, among them The Busy Body with Sid Caesar and Wild in the Streets. He also released his first album, Richard Pryor. He made a strong impression as Billie Holliday’s drug addicted piano player in Lady Sings the Blues, and his cinema appearances now total nearly 40 films including Uptown Saturday Night, Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars, Brewster’s Millions, Bustin’ Loose, Car Wash, the autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, and several films with Gene Wilder, including Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and his most recent screen appearance, Another You.

Richard Pryor is best known and loved for his live comedy, where he can present the truth as he sees it: hyperkinetically delivered, expletive-laced, and free form. Sometimes he delivered his message through characters such as the wino Mudbone. His subject matter included black life on the streets, the drug culture, sex and other topical issues, miming and mugging through a seemingly endless array of facial expressions.

His work has been captured in two feature films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, and on best-selling, Grammy Award-winning recordings such as That Nigger’s Crazy and Is It Something I Said? His comedy has had more than entertainment value. When he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett, Jr. said of Pryor "He made it possible for us to be in this business on equal terms." Composer Quincy Jones called him "a pioneer...who made us understand the truth about us."

On television, Pryor has headlined two series, The Richard Pryor Show (1977) and Pryor’s Place (1984). He has also done dramatic guest star appearances on such shows as The Wild, Wild West and The Mod Squad. In 1991, he was the subject of a well-received variety special, A Party for Richard Pryor. Pryor was presented with the American Comedy Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Honor in 1992.

Pryor’s writing credits notably include two 1973 Lily Tomlin television specials–one of which earned an Emmy Award and a Writers Guild Award, and episodes of the sitcom Sanford and Son. He made his directing debut with the 1982 film Richard Pryor Here and Now.

Pryor’s life away from the spotlight has continued to be as newsmaking as his on-stage doings, indeed often providing fodder for his act. He has five ex-wives, four children, including actress Rain Pryor, has suffered two heart attacks and undergone quadruple bypass surgery. In 1980 he made headlines when he was rushed to the Sherman Oaks Hospital and Burn Center with mostly third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body. In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system.

Despite his frailty and occasional struggle for balance, he returned to live performing in 1992 at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood. He has since appeared at venues around the country, still making jokes about himself and his afflictions and decisively demonstrating that he is a survivor–and living proof that laughter is, indeed, the best medicine.

Pryor, ill after years of living with multiple sclerosis, finally succumbed to a heart attack in December of 2005.
Photo of Richard Pryor