By the late-1960s, Richard Pryor had established himself as a successful, up-and-coming comedian. But his refusal to play it safe for mainstream America and a powerful need for self-expression led to a pivotal moment in 1967 that changed the course of his career — and comedy itself — inspiring a host of future performers, including Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle.
Pryor’s harsh childhood left a lifetime of scars
Born in Peoria, Illinois in December 1940, Pryor’s mother, Gertrude, was a prostitute and his father, Leroy, was a boxer, hustler and pimp, who worked at one of a series of whorehouses owned by Richard’s grandmother, Marie. When Gertrude abandoned Pryor when he was 10, it was Marie who raised him. Pryor later revealed that he was exposed to sexual abuse as a child, as well as frequent physical abuse at the hands of Marie, with whom he developed a close, complicated and troubled bond.
A series of run-ins with school officials left him a bright but disinterested student, and he was kicked out for good at age 14 following a physical altercation with a teacher. It was around this time that he met Juliette Whitaker, a supervisor at a local children’s club who first noticed Pryor’s talents, casting him in a series of shows. He worked in several low-level jobs before enrolling in the U.S. Army in 1958, spending much of his two-year stint in Army prison for a series of violent attacks on fellow soldiers, stemming from what he considered racial abuse.
He turned to stand-up comedy after his return from the Army
In 1960, Pryor began working as an emcee and comedian, branching out from Peoria to small clubs and halls around the Midwest, including on the famed “chitlin circuit,” which catered to black entertainers and customers. Inspired by the success of comedian Bill Cosby, Pryor moved to New York in 1963, leaving behind his first wife and child. He became a mainstay in the clubs of Greenwich Village, often playing alongside future icons like Bob Dylan and Woody Allen.
Much like Cosby and other black comics of the era, Pryor’s mild-mannered act avoided taboo topics like sex, drugs and race. He made a series of television appearances, including The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, but Pryor was becoming increasingly uneasy. Comedians like Lenny Bruce were making waves, changing the game by directly confronting America’s social and political ills. Pryor was fascinated by Bruce’s powerful use of coarse language and sexual talk to challenge his audiences in a more truthful way. Bruce’s work and his death by overdose in August 1966 became a catalyst for Pryor’s own evolution.
Pryor’s 'epiphany' occurred in Las Vegas
In the fall of 1967, 27-year-old Pryor was booked for a series of performances at the Aladdin Hotel. Pryor would later admit in his autobiography that he was already abusing cocaine during this period and described himself as having a “walking nervous breakdown,” as he struggled to perform material he no longer believed in, in a city and environment that was often still strictly segregated. In September of that year, Pryor walked on-stage before a sold-out crowd, including Rat Pack mainstay Dean Martin. He froze, blurted out, “What the f**k am I doing here?” and promptly walked off the stage.
Pryor’s refusal to perform the safe routines of the past infuriated talent bookers and club owners, and his career opportunities quickly dried up. In 1969, he moved to Berkeley, California, in a sort of self-imposed exile, where he was increasingly exposed to both the 60s counterculture and the Black Power movement, befriending black activists like Ishmael Reed, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey Newton.
Working initially in the San Francisco Bay area and then at predominately black clubs across the country, Pryor’s new brand of comedy was incendiary. His use of the n-word (which he would later drop from his act following a 1979 trip to Africa) shocked audiences, but it was Pryor’s newfound honesty, physicality, kinetic stage presence, and willingness to tackle topics like racism and sexuality that caught on with new audiences.
Pryor increasingly mined his own upbringing for his comedy, basing characters and routines on the black entertainers, performers, con artists, criminals, and junkies he encountered during his youth, shedding light on those who lived marginal lives. As he later wrote, "For the first time in my life I had a sense of Richard Pryor the person. I understood myself... I knew what I stood for... knew what I had to do... I had to go back and tell the truth."
Pryor’s demons continued to plague him for the rest of his life
After several years of struggle, by the early 1970s, Pryor was one of the highest-paid black entertainers in America. Despite criticism and attempts to curtail his edgy, sometimes scathing humor, he hosted a short-lived but influential television variety show, guest-hosted Saturday Night Live (only after NBC insisted on instituting a tape delay), released a series of chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning comedy albums, co-wrote the screenplay for Blazing Saddles, and appeared in a series of films, including Lady Sings the Blues, Silver Streak and even Superman III (in which he was paid more than star Christopher Reeve). But his demanding and often erratic behavior coupled with several box-office bombs led to a decline in his movie career.
He also continued to struggle in his personal life. He was devastated by his grandmother’s death in 1978, and his tumultuous relationships resulted in seven marriages, including remarrying two women twice. His debilitating battle with substance abuse included a notorious 1980 incident in which he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, leading to third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body in what he would later admit was a failed suicide attempt —and which he used as fodder for his comedy act.
Hard living led to a series of heart attacks and triple bypass surgery. In 1986, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was forced to use a mobility scooter. Despite this, he continued to perform for a number of years, receiving a series of honors, including the first-ever Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor, in 1998. Pryor died in December 2005, with tributes pouring in from several generations of comedians honoring Pryor’s trailblazing career and lasting legacy, which kickstarted nearly 40 years earlier on a Las Vegas stage.