The great stand-up comedian Richard Pryor was born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor (that’s as many names as a member of the Royal Family!) in Peoria, Illinois. I didn’t know much about Richard (aside from him being an extremely influential comedian), and after reading his Wikipedia entry, I have one thing to say – his life was crazy!
Apparently, Richard grew up in his grandmother’s brothel! Seriously (I read this in more than one place). His family owned a brothel, where his mother was a prostitute and his grandmother was the madam. His father was a bartender and boxer. After his mother skipped town when Richard was ten, his grandmother took over raising him. She was not a nice lady (hard to imagine; I always thought brothel owners were so kind!) and beat him frequently. Richard was expelled from school at age 14; at 18 he joined the army. Most of his time in the Army, however, was spent in jail, punishment for beating and stabbing a racially-insensitive asshole.
Richard performed his comedy routines in clubs during much of the 1960s, before he moved to California in 1969. In the 1970s he released several influential comedy albums and wrote for several television shows. He also appeared in quite a few movies, ranging from popular comedic films to Superman III. He co-wrote the great Mel Brook’s movie Blazing Saddles and was going to star as the black sheriff, but he had to be replaced when the studio refused to insure him. He was also going to play Josephus in Mel Brook’s History of the World Part 1, but was unable to because he was recovering from his freebasing accident (more on that later). Instead, Gregory Hines played the role. Despite missing out on those fabulous roles, Richard Pryor had quite the career. He is one of the most influential modern American comedians, revolutionizing comedy with his extreme use of profanity and willingness to tackle controversial topics (such as racism). He won the first Mark Twain Award for American Humor and Comedy Central ranked him number 1 on its list of Greatest Stand-Up Comedians. So it’s official – Richard Pryor is the best!
Despite being damn funny, Pryor had a lot of personal problems. He was married seven times to five different women (with a lot of girlfriends interspersed); the longest any individual marriage lasted was four years. Accusations of domestic violence and spousal abuse plagued his marriages, which probably accounts for why they never lasted very long. Most of these accusations were linked to Pryor’s drug abuse. He had six children; some with his wives and some with girlfriends. Interestingly, his eldest child (Richard Jr. – holla!) was born around 1961, while his youngest child was born in 1987. What a gap! His eldest son was old enough to be having children by 1987. Anyway, having children is not necessarily a problem, although I do not know what kind of father Richard was. Since most of his marriages lasted about two years, he might not have been around much for his children. According to other actors (such as Gene Wilder), Pryor was pretty difficult to work with, often showing up late and making ridiculous demands (such as asking for a helicopter for his commute). Some actors have also suggested that Pryor would claim there was racism on-set in order to get a larger paycheck. Rather sad for a man who made such insightful comedy.
One of Pryor’s lowest moments, though, has got to be his freebasing incident. While freebasing cocaine and drinking high-proof rum, Pryor managed to set himself on fire. He ran from his home, was subdued by police, and taken to a hospital to be treated for burns on over half his body. He spent six weeks recovering just at the hospital; it was this accident that prevented him from acting in History of the World Part 1.
Richard had health problems beginning in the 1970s. He had a heart attack in 1977 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. He had another heart attack in 1990, and shortly thereafter had to start using a wheelchair or motor scooter to get around on account of his MS. He died of a heart attack at age 65 in December 2005.
Pryor sounds like a very interesting guy. Given his horrible childhood, his fame, and his residence in California during the 1970s, it’s no surprise he abused drugs. However, drug abuse is no excuse for spousal abuse or generally acting like an asshole on movie sets.
Richard Pryor: great comedian, flawed man.