Richard Pryor is, without doubt, one of the most influential stand-up comics of all time and was an inspiration to Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Mike Epps and others. Pryor would have been 76 today after his life was cut tragically short in 2005.
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor was born in Peoria, Ill. and raised in his grandmother’s brothel. As seen in Pryor’s semi-autobiographical film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, the future funnyman’s mother worked as a prostitute at the brothel. In Pryor’s real life, he turned to humor to cope with the struggles of his early childhood and was a noted class clown. Pryor never completed school, dropping out at 14 before a brief stint in the U.S. Army.
The ’60’s would prove fruitful for Pryor. A move to New York City helped propel his budding career. Pryor married his first wife, Patricia Price, in 1960 and had one child with her. The end of their union moved Pryor to pursue stand-up. He was greatly influenced by Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and others, and his act led him to several television appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show.
Pryor’s natural charisma translated into small roles in films in the late ’60’s, and he released the first of his comedy albums in this period. A second marriage to Shelly Bonus ended in 1969 after the pair had a daughter. Pryor was an in-demand act across the country, though some of his comedy was censored. Frustrated, Pryor moved to Berkeley, Calif.
The ’70’s ushered in the era of even more success for Pryor, and his skills as both an actor and comedian blossomed. He starred in the Billie Holiday biopic, Lady Sings The Blues opposite Diana Ross in 1972. In 1974, Pryor won an Emmy Award for his work as a writer for The Lily Tomlin Show. During that time, Pryor was also a staff writer for Sanford and Son and The Flip Wilson Show.
Pryor became a box-office draw after starring in a bevy of films including Uptown Saturday Night, Silver Streak alongside the late Gene Wilder, and Greased Lightning, among several other hits. Pryor’s albums also sold well, and he earned five Grammy Awards over the course of his career. Despite the racy material found on his records, Pryor was brutally honest about his failed relationships, his substance abuse problems, and race in America as a whole.
In the ’80’s, Pryor continued to work but personal tragedies began to mount. In 1980, Pryor set himself on fire while using freebase cocaine and his drug troubles grew before he kicked the habit in the ’90’s. But by then, he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and his health slowly declined. While Pryor’s mind remained sharp as ever, the toll of the abuse of his body became too much. Pryor was 65 when he died on December 10, 2005, just days after his birthday.
Pryor is survived by his children Renee Pryor, Richard Jr., Elizabeth Ann, Rain Pryor, Steven Pryor, Kelsey Pryor and Franklin Pryor.