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.
Born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor grew up in the brothel run by his grandmother, Marie Carter, where his alcoholic mother, Gertrude L. (née Thomas), was a prostitute. His father, LeRoy "Buck Carter" Pryor (June 7, 1915 – September 27, 1968), was a former boxer and hustler. After Gertrude abandoned him when he was ten, Pryor was raised primarily by Marie, a tall, violent woman who would beat him for any of his eccentricities. Pryor was one of four children raised in his grandmother's brothel. He was sexually abused at age seven, and expelled from school at the age of fourteen. While in Peoria, he became a Freemason at a local lodge.
Pryor served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, but spent virtually the 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 he was stationed in West Germany. Angered that a white soldier was overly amused at the racially charged scenes of Douglas Sirk's film Imitation of Life, Pryor and several other black Soldiers beat and stabbed him, although not fatally.
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:
In September 1967, Pryor had what he described in his autobiography Pryor Convictions (1995) as an "epiphany". 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 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. Around this time, his parents died—his mother in 1967 and his father in 1968.
In 1969, Pryor moved to Berkeley, California, where he immersed himself in the counterculture and rubbed elbows with the likes of Huey P. Newton and Ishmael Reed.
A retrospective of Pryor's film work, concentrating on the 1970s, titled A Pryor Engagement, opened at Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinemas for a two-week run in February 2013. Several prolific comedians who have claimed Pryor as an influence include George Carlin, Dave Attell, Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Colin Quinn, Patrice O'Neal, Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Bill Burr, Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Griffin, and Eddie Izzard.
Pryor's body of work includes the concert movies and recordings: Richard Pryor: Live & 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 (1983). As an actor, he starred mainly in comedies such as Silver Streak (1976), but occasionally in dramas, such as Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978), or action films, such as Superman III (1983). He collaborated on many projects with actor Gene Wilder. Another frequent collaborator was actor/comedian/writer Paul Mooney.
Pryor won an Emmy Award (1973) and five Grammy Awards (1974, 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1982). In 1974, he also won two American Academy of Humor awards and the Writers Guild of America Award. The first-ever Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was presented to him in 1998. He was listed at number one on Comedy Central's list of all-time greatest stand-up comedians. In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked him first on its list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.
Pryor co-wrote Blazing Saddles (1974), 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 horribly damaging 1980 freebasing incident, Pryor was about to start filming Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I (1981), 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 won the part.
Pryor co-hosted the Academy Awards twice and was nominated for an Emmy for a guest role on the television series Chicago Hope. Network censors had warned Pryor about his profanity for the Academy Awards, and after a slip early in the program, a five-second delay was instituted when returning from a commercial break. Pryor is also one of only three Saturday Night Live hosts to be subjected to a rare five-second delay for his 1975 appearance (along with Sam Kinison in 1986 and Andrew Dice Clay in 1990).
Pryor's release Bicentennial Nigger (1976) continued his streak of success. It became his third consecutive gold album, and he collected his third consecutive Grammy for Best Comedic Recording for the album in 1977. With every successful album Pryor recorded for Warner (or later, his concert films and his 1980 freebasing accident), Laff quickly published an album of older material to capitalize on Pryor's growing fame—a practice they continued until 1983. The covers of Laff albums tied in thematically with Pryor movies, such as Are You Serious? for Silver Streak (1976), The Wizard of Comedy for his appearance in The Wiz (1978), and Insane for Stir Crazy (1980).
In November 1977, after many years of heavy smoking and drinking, Pryor suffered a mild heart attack. He recovered and resumed performing by January the following year. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. In 1990, Pryor suffered a second heart attack while in Australia. He underwent triple heart bypass surgery in 1991.
In 1979, at the height of his success, Pryor visited Africa. Upon returning to the United States, Pryor swore he would never use the word "nigger" in his stand-up comedy routine again.
On the late evening of June 9, 1980, during the making of the film Stir Crazy, and after days of freebasing cocaine, Pryor poured 151-proof rum all over himself and lit himself on fire. While ablaze, he ran down Parthenia Street from his Los Angeles home, until being subdued by police. He was taken to a hospital, where he was treated for second- and third-degree burns covering more than half of his body. Pryor spent six weeks in recovery at the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital. His daughter, Rain, stated that the incident happened as a result of a bout of drug-induced Psychosis.
Pryor incorporated a description of the incident into his comedy show Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982). He joked that the event was 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 that? Richard Pryor running down the street."
In 1983, Pryor signed a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures for $40 million and he started his own production company, Indigo Productions. Softer, more formulaic films followed, including Superman III (1983), which earned Pryor $4 million; Brewster's Millions (1985), Moving (1988), and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). The only film project from this period that recalled his rough roots was Pryor's semiautobiographic debut as a writer-director, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), which was not a major success.
Despite a reputation for constantly using profanity on and off camera, Pryor briefly hosted a children's show on CBS called Pryor's Place (1984). 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" (1984) fame.
He appeared in Harlem Nights (1989), a comedy-drama crime film starring three generations of black comedians (Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Redd Foxx).
In his later years starting in the early to mid-1990s, Pryor used a power-operated mobility scooter due to multiple sclerosis (MS, which he said stood for "More Shit"). He appears on the scooter in his last film appearance, a small role in David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) playing an auto-repair garage manager named Arnie.
In early 2000, Pryor appeared in the cold open of The Norm Show in the episode entitled "Norm vs. The Boxer". He played an elderly man in a wheelchair who lost the rights to in-home nursing when he kept attacking the Nurses before attacking Norm himself.
In 2002, a television documentary entitled The Funny Life of Richard Pryor depicted Pryor's life and career. Broadcast in the UK as part of the Channel 4 series Kings of Black Comedy, it was produced, directed and narrated by David Upshal and featured rare clips from Pryor's 1960s stand-up appearances and movies such as Silver Streak (1976), Blue Collar (1978), Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1978), and Stir Crazy (1980). Contributors included George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Whoopi Goldberg, Ice-T, Paul Mooney, Joan Rivers, and Lily Tomlin. The show tracked down the two cops who had rescued Pryor from his "freebasing incident", former managers, and even school friends from Pryor's home town of Peoria, Illinois. In the US, the show went out as part of the Heroes of Black Comedy series on Comedy Central, narrated by Don Cheadle.
A television documentary, Richard Pryor: I Ain't Dead Yet, #*%$#@!! (2003) consisted of archival footage of Pryor's performances and testimonials from fellow comedians, including Dave Chappelle, Denis Leary, Chris Rock, and Wanda Sykes, on Pryor's influence on comedy.
In 2004, Pryor was voted number one 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.
On December 19, 2005, BET aired a Pryor special, titled The Funniest Man Dead or Alive. It included commentary from fellow comedians, and insight into his upbringing.
Pryor was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
In the episode "Taxes and Death or Get Him to the Sunset Strip"(2012), the voice of Richard Pryor is played by Eddie Griffin in the satirical TV show Black Dynamite.
A planned biopic, entitled Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?, was being produced by Chris Rock and Adam Sandler. The film would have starred Marlon Wayans as the young Pryor. Other actors previously attached include Mike Epps and Eddie Murphy. The film would have been directed by Bill Condon and was still in development with no release date, as of February 2013.
The biopic remained in limbo, and went through several producers until it was announced in January 2014 that it was being backed by The Weinstein Company with Lee Daniels as Director. It was further announced, in August 2014, that the biopic will have Oprah Winfrey as Producer and will star Mike Epps as Pryor.
Artist Preston Jackson created a life-sized bronze statue in dedication to the beloved Comedian and named it "Richard Pryor: More than Just a Comedian". It was placed at the corner of State and Washington Streets in downtown Peoria, on May 1, 2015, close to the neighborhood in which he grew up with his mother. The unveiling was held Sunday, May 3, 2015.
Pryor also had relationships with actresses Pam Grier and Margot Kidder. In 2018, Quincy Jones and Jennifer Lee claimed that Pryor had a sexual relationship with Marlon Brando, and that Pryor was open about his bisexuality with his friends. Pryor's daughter Rain later disputed the claim. In his autobiography, Pryor admitted to having a two-week sexual relationship with a transvestite, which he called "two weeks of being gay".