Jerry Seinfeld called him the “Picasso of our profession,” while Chris Rock labeled him as “comedy’s Rosa Parks.” But those titles don’t tell the whole story of who Richard Pryor was, or what it took for him to get where he did. Buckle up as we travel back in time and learn how a poor kid made it big, without ever completely escaping his demons.
You know how they say a mother is a child’s first teacher, and by extension, the home is a child’s first school? Well, unfortunately poor Pryor’s troubles started from the moment he arrived in the world. His mother was a sex worker, and he was born in a house run by his grandmother. His dad was an ex-boxer and hustler who also worked as a pimp.
And the story would get much worse before it got any better.
It’s hard to say what traumatized young Pryor the most. On one occasion, he found a lifeless baby in a shoebox. The boy also regularly saw people fighting with each other in the bar next door. He spied on his mom and her colleagues while they were “working” and he even witnessed his mother cut one of his father's testicles during a fight.
Even after all this, somehow the worst was yet to come.
When Pryor was only seven years old, a teenager inappropriately touched him. Then, when Pryor was just 14, a Catholic priest victimized him once again.
Pryor had an incredibly dark childhood. However, he realized the power of laughter early on. One day he discovered he could make the women he lived with laugh, when he kept falling off a railing of bricks on purpose. But the best part (for him) was when he slipped and fell in dog poo, which made his usually stern grandmother laugh. As Pryor said, it was his "first joke."
Pryor used to be late for school a lot, until one of his teachers had an epiphany that would change his life. She told him she’d let him perform for the class for ten minutes every week if he showed up on time. This was great motivation. Young Richard loved doing slapstick routines for his classmates. It was an early sign of his unstoppable comic talents.
However, for every mentor who stood for up Pryor, it seems like a dozen more let him down. Case in point? His own parents. When Pryor was only ten years old, his mother abandoned him. Even worse, some sources say she left when Pryor was just five and that she had to leave because her husband beat her so viciously.
In the end, Pryor's tough grandmother stepped up and cared for the little boy.
Being the class clown helped Pryor realize that he loved performing to an audience. Luckily for him, a local director cast him in a community center performance of Rumpelstiltskin. The director of the show was a fairy godmother of sorts because she recognized Pryor’s talent and encouraged him to believe in himself. Sadly, these happy times wouldn't last for long.
As if Pryor’s life wasn't full of enough upheavals already, his ex-girlfriend got pregnant and gave birth to their child in 1957. At the time of his daughter's birth, Pryor was still a child himself, clocking in at only 16 years old. And here's the real kicker: the mother of Pryor's child wasn't exclusively seeing Pryor. She was also involved with Pryor's father.
Considering the kind of home environment Pryor came from, it wasn’t surprising that he got in a lot of trouble at school. Eventually, the administrators simply couldn't handle Pryor's antics and expelled him when he was 14. Unsure about what to do, Pryor worked odd jobs that came his way, became a janitor, and joined the army as soon as he turned 18.
He hoped the forces would give him stability, but they only made Pryor's life even more chaotic.
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Pryor was stationed in West Germany almost as soon as he joined the forces in 1958. Unfortunately, he didn't remain in active duty for too long before getting into a fight. A White officer provoked Pryor and several other Black officers with offensive comments. They beat him up badly, even using a knife to hurt him. Thankfully, none of the wounds were fatal, but Pryor still spent the next two years behind bars.
After he returned from his stint with the US forces, Pryor decided he wanted to marry and settle down. He married Patricia Price from his hometown in Peoria, Illinois, but their romance went sour fast. The couple had a child, named Richard Jr., however by the time the baby took his first breaths, his parents had already called it quits. It was the first of Pryor's six (!) failed marriages.
After his eventful time with the forces, Pryor wisely switched gears and pursued life as a performer. He began performing in various midwestern clubs and enjoyed seeing the audience respond to his jokes. Well, there was no looking back from this point. Pryor knew that if he wanted to make it big he had to move out of his comfort zone. He packed his bags and headed to New York in search of fame and fortune...
Pryor got a chance to open for Nina Simone soon after reaching New York. Later on, the legendary singer remembered how scared Pryor was, saying, “He shook like he had malaria.” Simone had to put her arms around Pryor and rock him to calm him down. And that wasn't the only way that Pryor's nerves manifested. He had no sense of his own comic voice and admitted that he just emulated Bill Cosby. Unfortunately, what started as an homage led to a total breakdown.
One day, Pryor went onstage in front of a full house in Vegas and realized that he felt like a fraud. He abruptly left in the middle of the show and vowed to discover his own comic voice. He spent some time in San Francisco, taking in counterculture and finding inspiration in poets and revolutionaries. Unfortunately, other people influenced him in less inspiring ways...
There are conflicting stories about how and when Pryor started his lifelong, dangerous affair with coke. However, he became incredibly addicted to it when he spent time with Redd Foxx, the owner of a small comedy club in LA. To use Pryor's own, ahem, colorful words: “I spent many nights when I felt as if we were in the coke Olympics.”
After his magical mystery tour throughout California, Pryor returned to stand-up very much his own man, with a distinct voice. He channeled all his pain and dark experiences into edgy comedy routines and the audience loved it. However, just as his career was finally taking off, Pryor's personal life was in the middle of a spectacular nosedive.
Pryor was quite the player. In 1967, his ex-girlfriend gave birth to his daughter, Elizabeth Ann. Then, in the same year, Pryor married for the second time, not walking down the aisle with the mother of his child, but with his new girlfriend, the struggling actress Shelley Bonus. In the same year that he and Bonus welcomed a daughter, they parted ways. The man clearly stayed busy!
It wasn’t only struggling actresses who caught Pryor’s eye though. He dated famous women like Superman actress Margot Kidder and Pam Grier. While both women described their relationships with Pryor as fiery, his romances usually ended for two main reasons: He couldn’t keep it in his pants and he was increasingly addicted to drugs--poor Pam Grier would learn this the hard way.
While Grier’s relationship with Pryor had its dark times, it also produced a lot of love and growth for the couple. Grier helped Pryor see his worth, which was no easy task given his struggles with depression and self-doubt. And that wasn't all: Pryor was also illiterate and had to learn his lines by sounding them out. Grier stepped up and taught him to read.
However, it's safe to say the drama outweighed the heartwarming moments...
Pryor had struggled with addiction for years at this point, so when he relapsed after a few months of sobriety, Grier was disappointed, but not shocked. However, she quickly became shocked when she went to the doctor's office and learned that she had a very strange condition: A certain drug was found inside her you-kn0w-what. According to the doctor, this was a sign that Pryor had applied the substance to his member before the couple got intimate.
Grier was, understandably, pretty upset when she heard this news. She marched up to Pryor and demanded that even if he wasn't going to take care of himself, he couldn't put her at risk. Pryor, however, didn't like the sound of that. He refused to use protection. But even this wasn't the breaking point in Grier and Pryor's messy romance.
Here's when Pryor officially went too far. In 1977, while he and Grier were still in a serious relationship, he began an affair with another woman. Then, he impregnated his mistress. And then, to top it all off, he married her. Here's the kicker: all of this happened while Grier believed that she and Pryor were still a couple. Stunningly, after all this, Grier wasn't even the one to dump Pryor. He dumped her because she dared to beat him at tennis.
Pryor's tragic past kept rearing its ugly head and affecting his relationships. Perhaps because he’d seen only violence associated with women while he was growing up, he couldn’t separate it from his own love life. He often beat his wives and girlfriends and subsequently, few of his romances lasted for very long.
That didn’t stop Pryor from trying though. He married five women a total of seven times (which means that yes, he married two of his wives twice).
But Pryor didn’t just find women attractive. In his biography, Pryor revealed that for at least two weeks, he fooled around with a beautiful transgender woman who looked like Josephine Baker. After that though, he “went back to life as a heterosexual.” But there would be a more shocking revelation about Pryor's bedroom-based activities later.
Musician-producer, Quincy Jones made a startling disclosure after Pryor’s passing: He had an affair with Marlon Brando. Although Pryor’s daughter, Rain, vehemently denied the existence of such a relationship, his widow, Jennifer Lee confirmed it was true. She stated that Pryor didn’t consider it shameful and said it wasn't a big deal in the 70s. I say: Get it, Richard.
At this time, Pryor transitioned to acting and instantly made a smash, especially with his role in a Billie Holiday biopic starring Diana Ross. He appeared in several other films as well, including the box-office hits Superman III (where he earned more than Christopher Reeve!) and Stir Crazy. However, when the cameras weren't rolling, Pryor's behavior wasn't so entertaining.
People who worked with him on Stir Crazy admitted that he could be rude and disrespectful. He made over the top demands, like wanting someone to fly him to and from the set in a special helicopter. He even had the producers fire a camera operator, because he imagined the man had insulted him. But maybe there was a darker reason behind Pryor's paranoid behaviour.
After his introduction to coke a couple of years ago, Pryor never really tried to curb his craving for it. Gene Wilder, his co-star in Stir Crazy, later admitted that he hadn’t realized Pryor’s behaviour might be a result of all the drugs he was on.
Eventually, Pryor's addiction came back to bite him. After Stir Crazy, Pryor could have had another career-defining role as the lead in Blazing Saddles, which he helped Mel Brooks write. However, Warner Bros refused to cast Pryor because of his drug-use. His habit was so notoriously destructive that that the studio couldn't guarantee that he'd even be able to make it through filming.
Did this reality check encourage Pryor to seek help? Unfortunately, quite the contrary.
Pryor was never a one-woman man, so though he’d been dating model Deboragh McGuire on and off for four years before they tied the knot in 1977, he was also seeing other people. In fact, he spent the night before his wedding with Jennifer Lee—who would later become wife number four and seven. However, this wasn’t why McGuire would file for divorce just four months after they walked down the aisle.
Shortly after their wedding, Pryor and McGuire had a New Year’s party at their place. Things heated up between McGuire’s friends and Pryor, but initially everyone thought was just a joke. Clearly, Pryor didn’t agree. He ordered everyone to leave his home and then fired some shots at one of McGuire's friend’s Mercedes. Thankfully, the car was empty, but that didn't mean Pryor would get off scot-free.
Officers booked Pryor for assault after the incident and the chaos ultimately led to the end of his third marriage. Although the couple claimed to still feel deep love for each other, McGuire stated that there was no going back after what happened. She also lamented the fact that Pryor couldn’t control his temper. In her words, “He waits until something gets under his skin so bad he blows up.
Pryor’s kids weren’t his top priority at first, but they became important to him after he and McGuire separated. Only Renee, age 20, lived with him at the time, as the other children lived with their mothers. As a way to make amends and get to know his offspring, Pryor took them all to Europe that summer. But even deep love for his kids wouldn’t be strong enough to keep him from making a heartbreaking choice.
In 1980, Pryor’s drug dependence had reached an all-time high and to make matter worse, he was also drinking a lot of vodka everyday. His grandmother’s passing that year left him in a dark place. One June evening, while freebasing coke, he poured rum over himself and then set his entire body on fire. Pryor instantly went up in flames.
Horrified once he realized what he’d done, Pryor desperately jumped out of the window. His family rushed to his room to see what happened, but it was already too late. Before they could do anything, Pryor was already running down the street. Officers finally caught up with him and took him to the hospital, where doctors tended to the second and third-degree burns that covered more than half his body.
Pryor’s body would keep warning him to take care of himself and change his lifestyle. However, for too long, he just didn't listen. The comedian had his first heart attack in 1977 and his second one in 1990. He also went through triple bypass surgery a year later in 1991. Sadly, when it comes to Pryor's health struggles, that's just the beginning.
Pryor’s fourth wife, Jennifer Lee, was the woman he’d been with the night before his third wedding. This marriage lasted all of a year because Lee could not tolerate her husband's drug habit. They married in 1981, some months after Pryor's fiery accident and though he tried to stay clean, he soon relapsed. After that, Lee felt that leaving was her only option.
After years of torment, Pryor finally kicked his drug habit in 1983. After that, things seemed to go well. His career revived and he married for his fifth wife, the aspiring actress Flynn Belaine, in 1986. However, because this is Richard Pryor, they divorced only one year after tying the knot. And then, everything in his personal life got even crazier than usual.
Buckle up because this one's a doozy. Shortly after their divorce, Pryor and his recent ex-wife Belaine got back together. However, Pryor was also seeing someone else at the same time, leading Pryor to welcome not one but two babies with two different women in a single year. He had a boy with his girlfriend Geraldine Mason and a girl with his ex-wife/current girlfriend Belaine. Oh, and that's not all!
Belaine and Pryor then made another attempt at getting married. They tied the knot again in 1990, but realized they really weren’t meant to be together and finally divorced in 1991.
A horrific voice from Pryor's past came back to haunt him. Many years after his tragic childhood, a now-famous Pryor visited his hometown of Peoria. His molester came to see him, and brought his son along, asking for an autograph. Although it couldn’t have been easy, Pryor signed the autograph as he thought, “I pray to God his son doesn’t have to go through what I did.”
Towards the late 80s, people noticed Pryor was losing a lot of weight and began to wonder if he had AIDS. Thankfully, he didn't but even so, his ailment wasn't much better. Pryor had Multiple Sclerosis. He would fight against the disease for the rest of his life. True to form, he joked about it too: “It was as if God had all this s** left over from the other afflictions and decided to throw it all into one disease called MS.”
After his diagnosis, Pryor called Lee, his fourth ex-wife. She said that he told her his life was “a mess” and asked her to help him. So Lee moved back to LA and helped him downsize from a huge rental to a more suitable place for both of them. She took care of him as his disease took its toll on him, and married him in 2001. They remained together until his passing, in 2005.
In some ways Pryor considered MS to be a blessing in disguise, because it helped him slow down, and take time for himself. However, there was no denying the havoc it wreaked on his body. He tried to continue doing stand-up in the 90s, but his poor health was evident. His last film appearance was in 1997's Lost Highway, where he used a power-operated scooter to help him get around.
Here's the saddest part of Pryor's MS diagnosis: Eventually, it impacted his body so profoundly that the quick-witted comedian could barely speak.
Pryor made a silent exit from the world in December 2005, just nine days after his 65th birthday. According to Lee, he breathed his last with a smile on his face. It was a third heart attack that finally did him in. Lee spread her husband's ashes in Hawaii, as Pryor had wanted.
There’s no denying the influence Pryor’s brand of humor has had on comedians following his footsteps. Filmmaker Damon Wayans and comedian Dave Chapelle are both huge fans, while multiple publications rated Pryor as the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. In 2015, artist Preston Jackson created a life-size bronze statue of Pryor. It stands in Pryor's hometown of Peoria.
Pryor hosted the Academy Awards as the first African American to do so. He played the first African American stock car racing champion in Greased Lightening, he and Wilder were Hollywood’s first interracial comedy duo, and he was the first recipient of the Mark Twain Award for American Humor. He famously said that he felt pride at being able to “use humor to lessen people’s hatred.”
Pryor was also the first African American to sign a deal with Columbia worth $40 million, and the first Black person to host SNL.
For all his faults, Pryor had his heart in the right place. He stood up for gay rights and really loved animals. PETA honored him for “saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses.” He even wrote to Barnum & Bailey Circus’s ringmaster to urge him to consider if it was “honorable to preside over” suffering animals. After his MS diagnosis he remained a staunch advocate against animal testing, even though it might have meant getting closer to a cure for his condition.
Richard Pryor infamously set himself on fire, but few people realize that he didn't do so just because he was under the influence. According to his wife, Pryor was attempting to end his life when he doused himself in rum and struck a match.
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