Pryor was a storyteller known for unflinching examinations of racism and customs in modern life, and was well-known for his frequent use of colorful, vulgar and profane language and racial epithets. He reached a broad audience with his trenchant observations. He is commonly regarded as one of the most important stand-up comedians of his time: Jerry Seinfeld called Pryor "The Picasso of our profession"; Whoopi Goldberg cited him as her biggest influence, stating "The major influence was Richard - I want to say those things he's saying." Bob Newhart has called Pryor "the seminal comedian of the last 50 years.
His body of work includes such concert movies and recordings as Richard Pryor: Live and 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. He also starred in numerous films as an actor, usually in comedies such as Silver Streak, but occasionally in dramatic roles, such as Paul Schrader's film Blue Collar and epic roles like Gus Gorman from Superman III (1983). He also collaborated on many projects with actor Gene Wilder. He won an Emmy Award in 1973, and five Grammy Awards in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1982. In 1974, he also won two American Academy of Humor awards and the Writers Guild of America Award.
He was expelled from school at age 14, and began working various odd jobs. His first professional performance was playing drums at a night club. From 1958 to 1960, Pryor served in the U.S. Army, but spent virtually that entire stint in an army prison. According to a 1999 profile about Pryor in The New Yorker, Pryor was incarcerated for an incident that occurred while stationed in Germany. Annoyed that a white soldier was a bit too amused at the racially charged sections of Douglas Sirk's movie Imitation of Life, Pryor and some other black soldiers beat and stabbed the white soldier (not fatally). According to Live on Sunset Boulevard, when he was nineteen, he worked at a Mafia-owned nightclub as the emcee. Upon hearing that they would not pay a stripper, he attempted to hold up the owners with a cap pistol. The owners, amazingly enough, apparently thought he was amusing. During this time, Pryor's girlfriend gave birth to a girl named Renee. Years later, however, he found out that she was actually not his child. In 1960, he married Patricia Price and they had one child together, Richard, Jr. (his first child and first son) They divorced in 1961.
In 1963, Pryor moved to New York City and began performing regularly in clubs alongside performers such as Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. On one of his first nights, he opened for singer and pianist Nina Simone at New York's Village Gate. Simone recalls Pryor's bout of performance anxiety:
He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn't bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time.
Inspired by Bill Cosby, Pryor began as a middlebrow comic, with material far less controversial than what was to come. Soon, he began appearing regularly on television variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. His popularity led him to become a rather successful comic in Las Vegas. The first five tracks on the 2005 compilation CD Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966-1974), recorded in 1966 and 1967, capture Pryor in this era.
In September 1967, Pryor had what he called in his autobiography Pryor Convictions an "epiphany" when he walked onto the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas (with Dean Martin in the audience), looked at the sold-out crowd, exclaimed over the microphone "What the fuck am I doing here!?", and walked off the stage. Afterward, Pryor began working at least mild profanity into his act, including the word "nigger". His first comedy recording, the eponymous 1968 debut release on the Dove/Reprise label, captures this particular period, tracking the evolution of Pryor's routine. It was around this time that his parents died; his mother in 1967 and his father in 1968.
In 1967, his second child and first daughter, Elizabeth Ann, was born to his girlfriend Maxine Anderson. Later that year, he married Shelly Bonis. In 1969, his third child and second daughter, Rain Pryor, was born. Pryor and Bonis divorced later that year.
During the legal battle, Stax briefly closed its doors. It was at this time that Pryor returned to Reprise/Warner Bros. Records, which re-released That Nigger's Crazy immediately after ...Is It Something I Said?, his first album with his new label. With every successful album Pryor recorded for Warner (or later, his concert films and his 1980 freebasing accident), Laff would quickly publish an album of older material to capitalize on Pryor's growing fame — a practice the label would continue until 1983. The covers of Laff albums were also thematically tied in with other Pryor movies such as "The Wizard of Comedy" for his appearance in "The Wiz"; "Are You Serious?" for "Silver Streak"; and "Insane" for "Stir Crazy".
In the 1970s, Pryor wrote for such television shows as Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show and a Lily Tomlin special, for which he shared an Emmy Award. Pryor also made an attempt to break into mainstream television during this period. He was a guest host on the first season of Saturday Night Live. Richard took long time girlfriend, actress-talk show host Kathrine McKee (sister of Lonette McKee) with him to New York, and she made a brief guest appearance with Pryor on SNL. His "racist word association" skit with Chevy Chase is frequently cited by TV critics as one of the funniest and most daring skits in SNL history.
The Richard Pryor Show premiered on NBC in 1977 but after only four shows, the series was cancelled. Television audiences were apparently not ready for the show's controversial subject matter, and Pryor was unwilling to alter the content of his material to meet the demands of network censors. During the short-lived series, he portrayed the first African-American President of the United States and in another skit, used costumes and visual distortion to appear nude.
In 1974, Pryor was arrested for income tax evasion and served 10 days in jail. He married actress Deborah McGuire in 1977, but they divorced in 1978. He soon began dating Jennifer Lee and they married in 1981. They divorced the following year.
Very successful and towards the height of his success, Pryor visited Africa in 1979. Upon returning to the United States, Pryor swore he would never use the word "nigger" in his stand-up comedy routine again. (However, his favorite epithet, "motherfucker", remains a term of endearment on his official website.)
Pryor appeared in several popular films from the early Seventies through the early Eighties, including Lady Sings the Blues; The Mack; Uptown Saturday Night; Silver Streak; Which Way Is Up?; Car Wash; Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings; Greased Lightning; Blue Collar & Bustin' Loose. In 1982 Pryor co-starred with Jackie Gleason in one of the "Great One"'s last projects, The Toy. In 1983, Pryor signed a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures for $40,000,000. This resulted in the gentrification of Pryor's onscreen personna and softer, more formulaic films like Superman III (which earned Pryor $4,000,000); Brewster's Millions; Stir Crazy; Moving; and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The only film project from this period of his career that recalled his rough roots was Pryor's semi-autobiographic debut as a writer-director, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, which was not a major success. Though he made four films with Gene Wilder, the two comic actors were never as close as many thought, according to Wilder's autobiography.
Pryor also co-wrote Blazing Saddles directed by Mel Brooks and starring Gene Wilder. Pryor was to play the lead role of Bart, but the film's production studio would not insure him, and Mel Brooks chose Cleavon Little instead. Before his infamous 1980 freebasing accident, Pryor was about to start filming Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I, but was replaced at the last minute by Gregory Hines. Pryor was also originally considered for the role of Billy Ray Valentine on Trading Places (1983), before Eddie Murphy ultimately won the part.
Despite a reputation for profanity, Pryor briefly hosted a children's show on CBS in 1984 called Pryor's Place. Like Sesame Street, Pryor's Place featured a cast of puppets, hanging out and having fun in a surprisingly friendly inner-city environment along with several children and characters portrayed by Pryor himself. However, Pryor's Place frequently dealt with more sobering issues than Sesame Street. It was cancelled shortly after its debut, despite the efforts of famed puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft and a theme song by Ray Parker Jr. of Ghostbusters fame to ensure its success.
Pryor developed a reputation for being difficult and unprofessional on the set of his films, and for making unreasonable demands. In his autobiography Kiss Me Like a Stranger, co-star Gene Wilder says that Pryor was frequently late to the set during filming of Stir Crazy, and that he demanded, among other things, a helicopter to fly him to and from set. Pryor was also accused of using allegations of on-set racism to force the hand of film producers into giving him more money. Also from Wilder's book:
How much of this behavior can be attributed to drug use is unknown.
Pryor incorporated a description of the incident into his "final" comedy show Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip in 1982. He joked that the event was actually caused by dunking a cookie into a glass of low-fat and pasteurized milk, causing an explosion. At the end of the bit, he poked fun at people who told jokes about it by waving a lit match and saying "What's this? It's Richard Pryor running down the street."
After his "final performance", Pryor did not stay away from stand-up comedy very long, — in 1983 he filmed and released a new concert film and accompanying album, Here And Now, which he directed himself. He then wrote and directed a fictionalized account of his life, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. Interestingly, Jo Jo Dancer opens with a suicide attempt by the main character in which he douses himself in rum and ignites himself.
In 1984, his fourth child and second son, Steven, was born to his girlfriend Flynn Belaine. Pryor married Belaine in October 1986. They divorced in July 1987. Before their divorce was final, Belaine conceived Kelsey Pryor. Meanwhile, another of Richard's girlfriends, Geraldine Mason gave birth to Franklin Mason in April 1987 (his fifth child and third son). Six months later (October 1987), Belaine gave birth to Kelsey Pryor (Richard's sixth child and third daughter).
Each of his marriages were characterised by accusations of domestic violence and spousal abuse except for his relationship with Belaine (with whom there were no allegations of physical abuse); most of the allegations of abuse were connected to Pryor's drug use. The exception to this rule was Patricia Price who was married to Pryor before his rise to stardom. Deborah McGuire accused him of shooting her car with a .357 Magnum , but later dropped the charges (even though this was mentioned during one of Pryor's standup routines, Live in Concert). Lee accused him of beating and attempting to strangle her during their first marriage, and did not share his home after they remarried. During his relationship with actress Pam Grier, Pryor proposed to actress Deborah McGuire (1977).
He had seven children: Renee, Richard Jr., Elizabeth, Rain, Steven, Franklin and Kelsey.
Richard Pryor was selected as the first recipient of the new Mark Twain Prize because as a stand-up comic, writer, and actor, he struck a chord, and a nerve, with America, forcing it to look at large social questions of race and the more tragicomic aspects of the human condition. Though uncompromising in his wit, Pryor, like Twain, projects a generosity of spirit that unites us. They were both trenchant social critics who spoke the truth, however outrageous.
In 2000, Rhino Records remastered all of Pryor's Reprise and WB albums for inclusion in the box set ...And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992).
In 2001, he remarried Jennifer Lee, who also had become his manager.
In 2002, Pryor and his wife/manager Jennifer Lee Pryor, won the legal rights to all of the Laff material; which amounted to almost 40 hours of reel-to-reel analog tape. After going through the tapes and getting Richard's blessing, Jennifer Lee Pryor gave Rhino Records access to the Laff tapes in 2004. These tapes, including the entire Craps album, form the basis of the double-CD release Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966-1974).
In 2003, a television documentary, Richard Pryor: I Ain't Dead Yet, #*%$#@!!, came out. It consisted of archival footage of Pryor's performances and testimonials from fellow comedians such as Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes and Denis Leary of the influence Pryor had on comedy.
In 2004, Pryor was voted #1 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time. In a 2005 British poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, Pryor was voted the 10th greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
In his later years, Richard Pryor became wheelchair bound due to multiple sclerosis (M.S., which he said stood for "More Shit"). In late-2004, his sister claimed that Pryor lost his voice. However, on January 9, 2005, Pryor's wife, Jennifer Lee, rebutted this statement in a post on Pryor's official website, citing Richard as saying: "Sick of hearing this shit about me not talking... not true... good days, bad days... but I still am a talkin' motherfucker!"
Pryor was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. The animal rights organization PETA gives out an award in Pryor's name to people who have done outstanding work to alleviate animal suffering. Mr. Pryor was active in animal rights and was deeply concerned about the plight of elephants in circuses and zoos.
On December 10, 2005, Pryor died of cardiac arrest in Encino, California. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital at 7:58 a.m. PST. Pryor died just 9 days after his 65th birthday. He was brought to the hospital after his wife's attempts to resuscitate him failed. His wife Jennifer was quoted as saying, "At the end, there was a smile on his face. He was cremated and his ashes were either given to a friend or family.
Pryor regularly tops "Stand-up comedians of all time" polls.