Richard Pryor, dubbed “the Picasso of our profession” by Jerry Seinfeld, was rated the best stand-up comedian in history by Rolling Stone in 2017. The comic industry would be a completely different place without Pryor’s irreverent impact. Despite his celebrity, there are still some facts about the comedy icon that you may not be aware of.
In the 1940s, the famed comedian grew up in Peoria, Illinois. His father was a pimp and his mother was a prostitute. He described it as “hell.”
Richard felt profoundly alone as a child growing up in Peoria’s red light district, with nothing to rely on except himself and what his mind could create. His grandmother Marie, who raised him in her own manner, taught him a lot, but it was his imagination—the “magic dust”—that became his constant companion, and it was his imagination that carried him to the stage.
His stand-up performances featured a wide range of depressed urban characters, all of whom were shown with stark emotional honesty. He was famous for his unflinching analyses of racism and current events, which included vulgarities, profanity, and racial epithets. He is widely recognized as one of the finest and most influential stand-up comedians of all time, thanks to his trenchant remarks and narrative technique.
The comedian grew up in a whorehouse, where his mother worked as a prostitute, his father as a pimp, and his grandmother as the madam of three brothels. In addition to owning a pub and a pool hall, the family was also involved in bootlegging. So much for the wholesomeness of the good old days.
“I saw my mother turn tricks for some drunk white man when I was a kid,” he once said. “I saw my father take the money, and I saw what it did to them.” Peoria’s mayor was one of the women his mother slept with for money.
When he was a child, he witnessed his father physically abusing his mother until she eventually left when he was five years old. His mother was very harsh with him. Pryor, on the other hand, claimed that things could have been far worse. He added, “At least Gertrude [his mother] didn’t flush me down the toilet.” This wasn’t only a satirical riff. In the residence, Pryor once discovered a dead infant in a box.
North Washington Street, a red light area near to downtown, was a vibrant site where many taboos were eased, including the one against “mixing of races.” The young Richard witnessed scenes of drunken brawling, friendliness, and conviviality at the Famous Door, the pub that the Pryor family founded in the mid-1940s, that left their impact on his brain and imagination.
Richard’s mother Gertrude filed for divorce from his father Buck in early 1946, and the court in the case granted his father full custody, a decision that had far-reaching implications. Rather than moving to the house of his maternal grandparents on the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois, he would stay in the North Washington area for the time being. Richard would identify with his paternal side of the family, the Pryors, for the rest of his life, with their brothel-level vision of human desires and foolishness.
Richard’s kindergarten teacher organized a meeting with his parents a few months after his parents’ divorce. The subject was Richard’s “apparently unstable emotionally.”
According to his official website, he was also sexually abused as a youngster. Pryor told People magazine, “For a long time I tried not to think of it.” When Bubba came to Peoria in the 1980s for an autograph session, he contacted him. Pryor told People, “I went out and signed an autograph for Bubba’s son. But when Bubba left, I said to myself, ‘I pray to God his son don’t have to go through what I did.'”
His official bio also claimed that he was assaulted by a Catholic priest. As The New York Daily News put it, “his dad and uncle plotted to blackmail the priest by encouraging young Richard to flirt with the reverend on the phone,” but “Pryor’s grandma put an end to that charade.” Not exactly a Leave It to Beaver home life.
Pryor found refuge in going to the movies to escape the harsh realities of his existence. Pryor was the class clown while he was in school. In his early adolescence, he became interested in performing. Juliette Whittaker, the director of a local community center, put Pryor in a performance of Rumpelstiltskin since he was a natural actor. She believed in his abilities and supported him throughout his career. Pryor was expelled from school when he was fourteen years old.
Pryor served in the United States Army from 1958 to 1960, but spent the majority of his time in a military jail. Pryor was imprisoned for an event that occurred when he was stationed in West Germany, according to a 1999 feature in The New Yorker. Pryor and several other black troops were enraged when a white soldier was unduly thrilled by the racially charged portions of Douglas Sirk’s film Imitation of Life, and they beat and stabbed him, but not fatally.
Richard Pryor wasn’t the vulgar, irreverent comedian he is famous for in his early standup appearances in the early 1960s. He sounded more like Bill Cosby than anything else. That was done on purpose.
He previously told The New York Times, “I made a lot of money as Bill Cosby, but I was hiding my personality. I just wanted to be in show business so bad I didn’t care how. It started bothering me — I was being a robot comic, repeating the same lines, getting the same laughs for the same jokes. The repetition was killing me.”
“If you go back to really early Richard Pryor, he’s looking preppy and talking about childhood, and there are a lot of the same sort of mannerisms and so forth as Bill Cosby,” said Mark Whitaker, Cosby’s biographer. According to Whitaker, Cosby’s management told Pryor a few years later to “kick it off” and be himself.
After that, Cosby went to watch Pryor perform. Cosby remarked, “I was in the audience when Richard took on a whole new persona – his own. Richard killed the Bill Cosby in his act, made people hate it. Then he worked on them, doing pure Pryor, and it was the most astonishing metamorphosis I have ever seen. He was magnificent.” The two comedians became friends and eventually co-starred in Neil Simon’s 1978 film California Suite.
Pryor had seven children with six different women.
Pryor has a lengthy history of substance addiction and tumultuous relationships both on and off screen. In the early 1970s, he was charged with failure to file tax returns for the years 1967 to 1970.
Pryor was spending more time in LA’s Crenshaw section, with pals like Paul Mooney and at clubs like Maverick’s Flat. Pryor, like many others swept up in the Black Power force field, was looking to be reborn. He was shedding the baggage from his past, the kind that had prevented him from saying onstage that “I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of whorehouses.”
Character after character flew out of Pryor’s mind, including the macho Jesse, the spunky Irma, the smooth-talking Coldblood, and the stuttering Torsey. He was rediscovering “a beautiful place with beautiful people” from his background, where “everybody was different, everybody was individual.” The outcome was the album “Craps” (After Hours).
He came onto the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas (with Dean Martin in the audience), looked out at the sold-out audience, yelled over the microphone, “What the fuck am I doing here!?” and walked off. Pryor then began to incorporate obscenity into his performance, including the epithet “nigger.” This time is captured on his first comic recording, the eponymous 1968 debut release on the Dove/Reprise label, which tracks the progression of Pryor’s routine. His parents died around this period, his mother in 1967 and his father in 1968. Pryor relocated to Berkeley, California, in 1969, when he became embroiled in the counterculture and crossed paths with Huey P. Newton and Ishmael Reed.
Many following comics were impacted by his success. He starred in films like Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Silver Streak (1976), and he became a significant box office draw.
Richard Pryor: Live & Smokin’ (1971), That Nigger’s Crazy (1974),…Is It Something I Said? (1975), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), and Richard Pryor: Here and Now (1983) are among his concert movies and recordings. As an actor, he was best known for comedies like Silver Streak (1976), but he also appeared in tragedies like Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978) and action flicks like Superman III (1983). He worked with Gene Wilder on a number of projects. Paul Mooney, an actor, comedian, and writer, was another frequent collaborator.
Richard Pryor was a legendary comedian and actor known for his raw, unapologetic style and his ability to deftly tackle difficult and often controversial subjects. Here are ten unique facts about the man that you may not have known:
Richard Pryor was born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois. He was the fourth of six children born to Gertrude L. Thomas and LeRoy “Buck Carter” Pryor.
Pryor’s early life was marked by poverty and abuse. His father was an alcoholic who beat him regularly, and his mother worked as a prostitute. Pryor himself was forced to live on the streets for a time, and he later recalled being homeless and starving.
Despite his tough start in life, Pryor had a natural talent for comedy and began performing in local clubs as a teenager. He dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to pursue a career in show business.
In 1963, Pryor moved to New York City and began performing stand-up comedy at the legendary club, The Improv. He quickly made a name for himself with his bold and unapologetic style, and he was soon performing on national television and touring the country.
Pryor’s breakthrough came in 1968 with the release of his debut album, “Richard Pryor.” The album was a critical and commercial success, and it cemented Pryor’s reputation as a groundbreaking and unique talent.
Throughout his career, Pryor tackled difficult and often controversial subjects in his comedy, including race, politics, and social issues. He was unafraid to push boundaries and challenge the status quo, and he often used his comedy as a way to comment on the world around him.
In addition to his stand-up comedy, Pryor also had a successful career as an actor. He appeared in over 50 films, including “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), “The Wiz” (1978), and “Silver Streak” (1976). He also starred in his own television show, “The Richard Pryor Show,” which ran for only four episodes in 1977 before being cancelled.
Despite his success, Pryor struggled with personal demons throughout his life. He battled drug addiction and depression, and he was hospitalized several times for mental health issues. He attempted suicide in 1980 by setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.
In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic and often debilitating disease that affects the central nervous system. Despite his illness, he continued to work and released several comedy albums and films, including “Richard Pryor: Here and Now” (1983) and “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling” (1986), which he wrote and directed.
Pryor received many accolades throughout his career, including five Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in “The Toy” (1982), and he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991.
Despite his struggles and hardships, Richard Pryor remained a pioneering and influential figure in comedy and entertainment. His unique style and bold approach to difficult subjects continue to inspire comedians and audiences alike.