African-American comedian Richard Pryor grew up bombarded by mixed messages. Pryor's grandmother owned a string of brothels, his mother prostituted herself, and his father was a pimp. Still, they raised Richard to be honest, polite, and religious. Living in one of the worst slums in Peoria, IL, Pryor found that he could best defend himself by getting gang members to laugh at instead of pummeling him. This led to his reputation as a disruptive class clown, although at least one understanding teacher allowed Pryor one minute per week to "cut up" so long as he behaved himself the rest of the time. At age 14, he became involved in amateur dramatics at Peoria's Carver Community Center, which polished his stage presence. In 1963, Pryor headed to New York to seek work as a standup comic; after small gigs in the black nightclub circuit, he was advised to pattern himself after Bill Cosby -- that is, to be what white audiences perceived as "nonthreatening."
For the next five years, the young comic flourished in clubs and on TV variety shows, making his film bow in The Busy Body (1967). But the suppression of Pryor's black pride and anger by the white power structure frustrated him. One night, sometime between 1969 and 1971, he "lost it" while performing a gig in Las Vegas; he either walked off-stage without a word or he obscenely proclaimed that he was sick of it. Over the next few years, Pryor found himself banned from many nightclubs, allegedly due to offending the mob-connected powers-that-be, and lost many of his so-called friends who'd been sponging off of him. Broke, Pryor went underground in Berkeley, CA, in the early '70s; when he re-emerged, he was a road-company Cosby no more. His act, replete with colorful epithets, painfully accurate character studies of street types, and hilarious (and, to some, frightening) hostility over black-white inequities, struck just the right note with audiences of the committed '70s. Record company executives, concerned that Pryor's humor would appeal only to blacks, were amazed at how well his first post-Berkeley album, That Nigger's Crazy!, sold with young white consumers.
As for Hollywood, Pryor made a key early appearance in the Diana Ross vehicle Lady Sings the Blues. But ultra-reactionary Tinseltown wasn't quite attuned to Pryor's liberal use of obscenities or his racial posturing. Pryor had been commissioned to write and star in a Mel Brooks-directed Western-comedy about a black sheriff, but Brooks replaced Pryor with the less-threatening Cleavon Little; Pryor nonetheless retained a credit as one of five writers on the picture, alongside such luminaries as Andrew Bergman. When Pryor appeared onscreen in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings and Silver Streak (both 1976), it was as a supporting actor. But Pryor's popularity built momentum, and by the end of the '70s he became the highest-paid starring comedian in films, with long-range contracts ensuring him work well into the next decade - when such efforts as Stir Crazy, Bustin' Loose, and The Toy helped to both clean up the foul-mouthed comic's somewhat raunchy public image, and endear him to a whole new generation of fans. His comedy albums -- and later, videocassettes -- sold out as quickly as they were recorded. The only entertainment arena still too timid for Pryor was network television -- his 1977 NBC variety series has become legendary for the staggering amount of network interference and censorship imposed upon it.
By the early '80s, Pryor was on top of the entertainment world. Then came a near-fatal catastrophe when he accidentally set himself afire while freebasing cocaine. Upon recovery, he joked liberally (and self-deprecatively) about his brush with death, but, otherwise, he appeared to change; his comedy became more introspective, more rambling, more tiresome, and occasionally (as in the 1983 standup effort Richard Pryor: Here and Now) drew vicious heckling and catcalls from obnoxious audiences. His cinematic decline began with a thinly-disguised film autobiography, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), which Pryor starred in and directed; it met with critical scorn. Pryor's films declined in popularity, the audiences grew more hostile at the concerts, and Pryor deteriorated physically. Doctors diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis in the late '80s, and, by 1990, it became painfully obvious to everyone that he was a very sick man, although his industry friends and supporters made great effort to celebrate his accomplishments and buoy his spirits. The twin 1989 releases Harlem Nights and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (the latter of which re-teamed Pryor with fellow Silver Streak alums Arthur Hiller and Gene Wilder) failed to reignite Pryor's popularity or draw back his fanbase.
Pryor's ill-fated attempt to resuscitate his stand-up act at L.A.'s Comedy Store in 1992 proved disastrous; unable to stand, Pryor was forced to deliver his monologues from an easy chair; he aborted his planned tour soon after. He appeared in television and films only sporadically in his final decade, save a rare cameo in David Lynch's 1997 Lost Highway.
These dark omens foretold a sad end to a shimmering career; the world lost Pryor soon after. On December 12, 2005, the comedian - only 65 years old -- died of a heart attack in a Los Angeles hospital. But he left a peerless legacy behind as a stand-up comic and black actor. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi