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
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.