December 10, 2005 was a sad day for the comedy world as it lost a true comic genius. Richard Pryor, who lived to 65, was (and still is) considered to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld even called him “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock dubbed him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Like many comedy greats, the mark Pryor’s mark was not just in humor. His comedy was really just part of his story.
Pryor’s world offstage was full of twists and turns. His story is one that simply can’t be made up, regardless of how off-the-wall it sounds. This is the hilarious and heartbreaking life of the one and only Richard Pryor.
Richard Pryor published his autobiography, Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences, in 1995. He dedicated it to his “angels,” and after understanding the life he lived, it would only make sense that he was guided by them. The comedian, actor, writer, seemed to have had the devil perched on his shoulder, luring him over to the dark side since he was a young boy.
Pryor went on a journey from a rough child (to put it lightly) to becoming a multimillionaire addict to meeting his demise way too early. But it’s the in-between stories that make all the difference. Pryor certainly lived a hard life, but he made millions of people laugh even harder. “My job, as I saw it, was to throw light where there had only been darkness,” he wrote.
Pryor was born on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois and grew up in a brothel. His grandmother, Marie Carter, owned three “massage parlors,” one of which he called home. Pryor’s mother, Gertrude, worked there, but he rarely saw her. His father, LeRoy “Buck Carter,” was a one-time boxer and hustler.
Buck had won a boxing tournament in his youth and was skilled in using his fists, making him the “muscle” of the brothel. He was also particularly cold and uncaring towards both his son and his wife. When Pryor was 10, his mother abandoned him, leaving him in the care of his grandmother.
Marie (Buck’s mother) was a tall, violent woman who would punish the young Pryor for his eccentricities. Pryor wasn’t alone, though. He was one of four children raised in the brothel. Those early years were filled with the kind of stories you only hear in horror stories. He experienced things that no child should ever have to.
Pryor admitted to having watched the women at work: “I spied through the keyholes… I bumped my head a lot, but I also got an education you couldn’t get in school.” He was about five years old when his rascal spirit found its outlet. Pryor learned to use his wit to help him survive the rough circumstances of his upbringing, but it didn’t help him in school.
He was nine when he got expelled from Catholic school after the staff learned of his family’s “trade.” The boy was then sent to another school, only to get expelled again at the age of 14, because he hit his science teacher in the face.
In the end, Pryor never received more than an eighth-grade education and thus was forced to take low-paying jobs at factories or to drive trucks to make ends meet. Sometimes, he resorted to thievery. After already being rejected by his educators, Pryor suffered further abuse at the hands of a neighbor and later by a priest.
“I was a skinny, little black kid, with big eyes that took in the whole world and a wide, bright smile that begged for more attention than anybody had time to give,” Pryor himself wrote. The brothel, as bad an environment as it was, was just one part of it.
There was also the family’s bar, the Famous Door, where Pryor saw people beaten and stabbed. His neighborhood was by no means any safer. Pryor painted a picture of his youth in his book. He said that “prostitutes sat in the big picture window and waved to customers… Whites and Blacks. Businessmen. Politicians. Junkies. I spent a lot of time sitting with them, yacking, laughing, and bulls****ing.”
The point is that, believe it or not, there were some good times as well. Like many other comedy greats before and after him, the dark times led Pryor to comic genius. He discovered that he could even make his hard-edged family laugh. He described a time when he was dressed in a cowboy outfit, sitting on a stack of bricks.
He noticed that whenever he would fall off on purpose, everyone laughed, including his grandmother, “who made it her job to scare the s**t out of people.” Then, a little dog “poo-pooed in our yard. I got up, ran to my grandmother, and slipped in the dog poop. It made Mama and the rest laugh again.”
He wrote that it was his “first joke. All in sh**. And I been covered in it ever since.” Eventually, Pryor came of age and enlisted in the army, serving from 1958 to 1960. But he wasn’t a war hero – far from it — as he spent almost all of his army stint in military prison.
According to The New Yorker, Pryor was incarcerated for something that happened while he was stationed in West Germany. Angry that a white soldier was a little too amused at the racially charged scenes of the film Imitation of Life, Pryor (and other Black soldiers) beat the soldier, nearly taking his life.
After his return from Germany, Pryor turned to comedy. Thanks to his talent and charisma, he slowly but surely climbed the ranks. Pryor started out by doing short bits in between music acts at a certain bar that he worked at.
He left his wife and child in Illinois to go on tour and eventually settled on the comedy clubs of New York. At first, he looked toward the most popular Black comedian there was at the time: Bill Cosby. Cosby, back then, was seen as family-friendly… and safe (ironically).
He landed appearances on Merv Griffin, and Ed Sullivan also gave him some publicity, but in 1966, Pryor’s career got the boost it needed when singer Bobby Darin offered him the opportunity to be the opening act for his Las Vegas shows at the Flamingo.
Pryor, who eventually became a comedian who spoke the hard, unspeakable truth, actually started out benign, like his then-icon. He even modeled his speaking patterns after Cosby. Soon enough, Pryor was being called out by a few comedy legends. Don Rickles, for one, came backstage and praised Pryor’s act. He recalled Rickles telling him, “It’s uncanny… You sound just like Bill Cosby.”
Pryor described his early routines as “harmless spoofs of life in the ghetto,” like when he pretended to be a “doofus.” One of his jokes went like this: “I heard a knock on the door. I said to my wife, ‘There’s a knock on the door.’ And my wife said, ‘That’s peculiar. We ain’t got no door.’”
Pryor’s act was nothing like his later work, and he was apparently sick of it himself. Whereas Rickles was seemingly amused by Pryor’s Crosby-esque voice and routine, Groucho Marx was not. One night at a party, Marx gave Pryor a bit of a lecture.
He asked the budding comedian: “So how do you want to end up? Do you want a career you’re proud of? Or do you want to end up a spitting wad like Jerry Lewis?” This ensuing identity crisis came to a head in 1967.
Pryor (who was already regularly doing drugs after being introduced to it by a prostitute named Tia Maria) flamed out on stage at the Aladdin in front of none other than Rat Pack member Dean Martin. “I imagined what I looked like and got disgusted. I gasped for clarity as if it was oxygen,” he wrote.
In a “burst of inspiration,” he recalled finally asking the crowd – and basically himself: “What the f*** am I doing here?” It was at that point that he dropped his microphone mid-show and turned and walked off stage.
After that critical moment, Pryor temporarily retired from comedy. He went to California and regrouped, spending time listening to jazz icon Miles Davis, who became something of a soul mate for Pryor. In early 1968, Pryor was set to open for Davis at New York’s The Village Gate.
At the time, Davis was already a legend. “The gesture was pure Miles — intuitive, supportive, generous, and in sync with the moment,” Pryor wrote. “By trading places, he was giving me a vote of support.” After the show, Pryor went over to Davis’ dressing room, walked in, and found the jazz artist “passionately kissing” bandleader Dizzy Gillespie.
That same night, Davis introduced Pryor to his dealer, whom he called “the Gypsy Lady.” After that, his and Davis’ lives “became intertwined,” as Pryor put it. Davis fascinated him “like nothing else… No matter what he said, Miles sounded cool.”
But the two artists had their share of arguments, mostly because of Pryor’s erratic behavior. While living in Berkeley in the early ’70s, Pryor learned that his estranged wife Shelley was hanging out with Davis. “I was so pissed off… that I walked into a pawn shop, bought a trumpet, and blew it on a street corner,” he admitted in his book.
Despite the drugs and the turmoil, Pryor found Davis to be a hero who inspired him to listen to the “music” in his head. During one fight, Shelley implored him, “You don’t love anybody, do you?” His response: “I love Miles.”
Pryor also found inspiration at comedian Redd Foxx’s comedy club in L.A. Foxx was a mentor to him, as well as a partner in crime. According to Pryor, Foxx carried a switchblade (sometimes a gun) and ran his club “like a gangster.”
Foxx was probably not the best influence on the young comedian, but he was a master storyteller. He introduced Pryor to Malcolm X, who was “dedicated to teaching about human beings, about being human,” Pryor said. He started performing for Black audiences and found inspiration in his troubled childhood.
He also found a new vision and gained insight from the trauma of being a Black man in America at the time. Soon enough, Pryor started to find his true voice. “I knew that I could stir up more sh** on stage than in a revolution.”
So, he returned to the comedy stage with an entirely new set. He scrapped the whole Cosby bit and learned to embrace his own persona. He was on his way to becoming an honest and vulnerable Black man with something meaningful and funny to say.
When Pryor returned from his hiatus, he garnered newfound inspiration for his comedy act from all the people he met during his life. He stopped with all the safe, traditional jokes and started truth-telling comedy. His fresh, new approach to comedy, along with his generous use of profanities, was met with substantial controversy.
Despite their concerns, NBC still gave Pryor several TV specials and even his own show that debuted in 1977. The network ended up canceling it, though, when Pryor didn’t comply with their expectations. Displeased with the heavy censorship, he walked out, saying, “They retained about 6,000 people to do nothing but mess with my material.”
Pryor’s colorful language meant that NBC refused to allow him to guest host Saturday Night Live. Keep in mind that this was in 1975 when SNL was brand new, and creator Lorne Michaels wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. After NBC refused to accept Pryor, Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded that the comedian be a guest host.
Michaels went so far as to hand in a fake resignation in order to convince NBC executives to allow the foul-mouthed comic to be on the show. They relented, and Pryor hosted the 7th episode of the show’s first season. But Michaels had a plan.
Michaels implemented a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode. Why the delay? Because it was his way to be sure that any unscripted/foul language wouldn’t make its way out over the airwaves. Pryor was unaware of the delay at first.
When he found out, he confirmed that he would have refused to even do the show if he had known about it. That episode contained one of the edgiest and most memorable sketches ever to appear on the show. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal comedy writer, Paul Mooney, each claimed to have written the sketch.
Pryor came to be known for his work in front of the camera, but he was also behind it at times. In fact, he won an Emmy in 1974 (his only one) for writing. He won the award for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (he also appeared in it).
Throughout his career, he earned a total of four nominations: two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer. Speaking of Lily Tomlin, Pryor famously had a crush on his comedian co-star and friend. His crush on Tomlin went unrequited, but his love life was plentiful and explosive. He was, after all, married seven times.
After Pryor’s nearly fatal encounter with fire (which we’ll get to soon), his daughter Rain remembered a particularly memorable moment at the hospital. “The doctor comes out and says, ‘Mrs. Pryor?’ And eight women stood up,” Rain recalled. His daughter said eight women, but he was actually married to seven (but who’s counting).
In fact, Pryor was married seven times, but to five different women. In addition to his marital unions, he had extramarital affairs. He dated Pam Grier, a transgender model named Mitrasha, and Marlon Brando (rumored but not confirmed).
Pryor’s relationship preferences were not as widely known as his comedy acts or even his disturbing upbringing. But the fact of the matter is that Pryor was openly bisexual and didn’t really try to conform to any hard-wired sexual constraints.
He was very open about this aspect of himself. He wrote: “I never kept [my lover] a secret. My best friend, for instance, knew I was [sleeping with] a dude, and a drop-dead gorgeous one at that. I even admitted doing something different was exciting.” One intimate partner of his was Marlon Brando.
Even though Pryor himself wasn’t ashamed of his romance with Brando, both Pryor’s daughter and Brando’s son denied it. However, Pryor’s widow Jennifer Leeconfirmed it. She noted that it was “the ’70s!”
She said, “If you did enough [crack], you’d [make love to] a radiator and send it flowers in the morning.” Music producer Quincy Jones was another person who claimed that the two men were involved. But, when it came to marriage, Pryor only wanted to tie the knot with women… five of them.
The first of five was Patricia Price, and they lasted one year, from 1960 to 1961. Then, in 1967, he married Shelley Bonus (the one who was hanging out with Miles Davis). They lasted two years, until 1969. Nearly a decade later, after dating for four years, he tied the knot with Deborah McGuire, an aspiring model and actress, in 1977.
They divorced in 1978, after which he married Jennifer Lee in 1981. Lee was an actress and interior designer who was previously hired to decorate Pryor’s home. Yet again, the union only lasted a year. They were divorced by late 1982 due to his addiction.
Pryor also married Flynn Belaine, another aspiring actress, in 1986. The pair met when he was performing in Washington D.C. in 1984. In a rather confusing and complicated series of events, Pryor filed for divorce only two months after their wedding, yet he withdrew the petition on the very same day.
A week later, he filed for divorce again. Their divorce was finalized in 1987, but they remarried in 1990, and divorced again in July 1991. By 2001, Pryor and Lee reunited and remarried. The couple remained married until Pryor’s death.
As for Pryor’s children, he had seven kids with six different women. Renee Pryor was born in 1957 and is the child of Pryor and his girlfriend Susan, when he was 16. Richard Pryor Jr. was born in 1962 and is the child of Pryor and his first wife, Patricia. Then, there’s Elizabeth Ann, born in 1967, who was the child of Pryor and girlfriend Maxine Anderson.
Rain Pryor (the one who remembers the “eight women” at the hospital) was born in 1969 and is the child of Pryor and his second wife, Shelley. Steven, born in 1984, is Pryor and Flynn’s son. Franklin, born in 1987, is the son of Pryor and actress/model Geraldine Mason. Last but not least is Kelsey, born in 1987, who is the child of Pryor and Flynn.
Pryor thrived on romantic chaos and even violence. There was one time when actress Margot Kidder discovered Pryor was cheating on her, so she cut up his Armani wardrobe with a pair of scissors.
As his fame skyrocketed in the ‘70s and ’80s, his love life became a complete jumble of marriages and mistresses. He wrote: “I should have just taped my personal life and sold it as a weekly drama.” He confessed to having hooked up with Jennifer (wife number four and seven) the night before his wedding with Deborah.
His wedding with Deborah was quite the spectacle. Pryor was intoxicated and his daughter Elizabeth wore black. He also recalled Pam Grier showing up uninvited. Deborah, the bride and center of the “show,” was an hour late.
The next day, Pryor was at work, taping a TV show while still in his tuxedo. But behind the travesty lay an even darker truth. Pryor admitted to beating his wives during intoxicated rages. In fact, he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon after shooting the wheels of his Mercedes when Deborah tried to escape during a New Year’s party.
“Violence is like voodoo,” he wrote about life as an abuser. “The sting is like a hex. You become possessed by each other. Locked in a diabolical dance.” Pryor’s erratic behavior worsened as he aged. He was once accused of assaulting a clerk at a hotel with a fork.
It got so bad that there were times when Pryor was spending over $100 per day on crack. Speaking of violence, an incident occurred in 1980 that would be a real game-changer in his turbulent life. But unfortunately, it provided only a temporary respite from the chaos.
On June 9, 1980, Pryor was at his mansion in Northridge with some friends, listening to jazz and doing blow. He was freebasing by that point and was hallucinating. He started to pour cognac all over himself. He wrote about the notorious incident…
“My isolation was interrupted by a knock on the door. A bang, really. My cousin opened it and looked inside at the moment I picked up my Bic lighter. I saw him trying to figure out what I was doing.”
“Come on in,” Pryor said. His cousin then zeroed in on the lighter in his hand. “Oh no!” he exclaimed.
Pryor said, “Don’t be afraid.” Then he flicked it… and “WHOOSH! I was engulfed in flame.” Pryor went into shock. While he was on fire, he rubbed the back of his head and looked at his hand. As flames rose from his skin, he screamed.
Suddenly, the room was filled with his screaming family and employees trying to put out the fire. What Pryor did next was jump out of his window. He was running down his residential street, ablaze. He refused help until the police finally got him into an ambulance.
Pryor was rushed to the hospital and ultimately suffered third-degree burns across his upper body. He had to undergo weeks of painful skin grafts. There was a period when people assumed that Pryor didn’t survive the incident.
Some publications even wrote obituaries for him! But he was alive… just not so well. And as he had done for most of his life, he turned tragedy into comedy. “Catching on fire is inspiring,” he wrote. “They should use it for the Olympics. ’Cause I did the hundred-yard dash in about 4.6 in the underbrush.”
For years, it was believed that the fire was an accident. However, in a 1986 interview with Barbara Walters, Pryor finally came out with the truth. He confessed to Walters that he purposely doused himself in rum and lit himself in an attempt to end his life.
Although the near-fatal experience quelled his addiction, it was a fleeting moment. He later fell off the wagon. “Drugs may start out fun, but they never end in fun. The horror they brought me every night and the guilt they brought me every day is what drugs are about.” (You hear that, kids? Let this be a lesson).
Pryor was a co-writer of the comedy film Blazing Saddles. He was also supposed to star in the lead role, but the studio refused to give him the part because his behavior was too unpredictable. Gene Wilder, who played Jim, remembered the day Pryor didn’t come to work…
Pryor reportedly found himself in Cleveland with no cash and no memory of how he got there. Wilder and Pryor also filmed Silver Streak, See No Evil Hear No Evil, and Another You together, but when they teamed up for 1980’s Stir Crazy, Pryor’s drug abuse was out of control. He was often late to the film set, which upset director Sidney Poitier. There were times when he wouldn’t show up at all.
Despite his brush with death, he was back where he started. He slowly made his way to rehab and made repeated attempts to get sober. What slowed him down were multiple heart attacks and his eventual diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1986. In some ways, Pryor believed that was a blessing in disguise.
He noted that MS didn’t end his life – it “changed” it. “Perhaps it was God’s way of telling me to chill, slow down, look at the trees, sniff the flowers rather than the coke, and take time for myself and see what it’s like to be a human being.”
Although MS slowed him down considerably, Pryor continued to act. In his last two films with his comedic co-star Gene Wilder, Pryor was struggling to deliver his lines and looked very frail. He also managed to perform stand-up when he was able.
Due to the disease, though, Pryor couldn’t stand on stage and enlisted the help of a chair to get through his performance. It came to the point that he had to use a wheelchair. He was essentially performing stand-up while sitting down. By 1992, he was planning to go on tour, but the work was wearing him thin, and he decided to cancel.
On December 10, 2005, just nine days after his 65th birthday, he suffered a third heart attack in Los Angeles. After his wife’s attempts to revive him failed, he was taken to the hospital. His widow Jennifer stated: “At the end, there was a smile on his face.”
Like everything in his complicated life, Pryor tackled his declining health head-on, spinning the tragedy into jokes that were both uncomfortable and honest. “If you tell the truth,” he wrote, “it’s going to be funny.” After a life such as his, let’s hope that he is finally at rest.
When Pryor was confined to a wheelchair, he became an avid supporter of animal rights and actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind. It was so important to him that even when that type of testing meant getting closer to a cure for MS, he was still against it.
He was honored by PETA for saving baby elephants in Botswana, which were targeted for circuses. In 2000, before the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus were scheduled to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor wrote to the Big Top’s first Black ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson…
He wrote to Iverson, giving him something to think about: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals.”
After having lived a life such as his, and leaving behind a legacy of his own, adding animal rights to the mark he made on the world is just the cherry on top. After reading this, it’s up to you to decide where you place Pryor in the end. But one thing is for sure: He made a real impact.