From the streets to stardom, Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor
Sun, 1940-12-01

Richard Pryor, an African American actor, director, screenwriter, and stand-up comic, was born on this date in 1940.

Born into a poor family in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor grew up in a lower class brothel, dropped out of high school at the age of 14, and later served in the United States Army for two years. He honed an instinctive talent for humor into a proficient stand-up comedy act while touring nightclubs during the early 1960s, eventually gaining national exposure through appearances on television talk and variety shows. Responding to the social ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pryor departed from the conventions of stand-up comedy.

He drew freely on his experiences as an African-American, treating issues such as racism, sex, and street life in a confrontational manner. The resulting routines, recorded on such hit albums as "That Nigger's Crazy," were hilarious, insightful, and often moving. Pryor made his movie debut in 1967 and subsequently appeared in several low-budget films. After his first major screen role, in "Lady Sings the Blues," he went on to become one of the biggest box-office attractions of the 1970s.

He did his most critically acclaimed screen work in the political drama "Blue Collar," and in two films of his deep solo shows, "Richard Pryor Live in Concert" and "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip." His career was interrupted in 1980 when he suffered severe burns while using cocaine. Although his career subsequently revived, he was forced to retire from performing in the early 1990s due to multiple sclerosis.

Pryor was known for dealing candidly with controversial topics and bringing African-American comedy traditions to mainstream audiences. He raised stand-up comedy to the level of performance art and influenced a generation of performers.

Richard Pryor died of a heart attack on December 10, 2005, in Los Angeles, CA.

Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences,
by Todd Gold.
New York: Pantheon, 1995

To become an Actor or Actress

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Pryor, Richard