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UNSPEAKABLE – Who was Richard Pryor?

UNSPEAKABLE is a theatrical event inspired by known facts about a public figure in order to offer a perspective on the entertainment business, race, human nature (and/or whatever you take away from the experience). Otherwise it is work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and not intended. UNSPEAKABLE is not endorsed, supported or sponsored in any manner by the Estate of Richard Pryor or any other party connected with the Estate or the comedian himself.

Richard Pryor is known as one of the greatest American comedians and is an inspiration to generations behind and ahead of us. From performing locally in his hometown, to headlining his own shows– Richard Pryor defied any and all of his limitations. Richard Pryor’s story is a prime example, to this day, that anything is possible.

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor was born December 1st, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois. His mother was a prostitute, while his father was a boxer and bartender. Unfortunately, they divorced very early in Richard’s life. Unable to take care of him, Richard’s mother placed Richard under the care of his grandmother. So Richard had no choice but to be raised in the brothel his grandmother owned. Pryor was exposed to sex, violence, drugs and was even a victim of rape.  On top of that, at the age of 14 he was expelled from school. Despite all of the trauma in his life, Richard still found a way to be inspired.  Richard would escape his tumultuous life through movies and the stage. From very early on, entertainment was a passion and a dream. With tenacity, Richard sought after his goals.

To start, Pryor had a stand-up/singing act that he would perform locally. After noticing that his audiences preferred his jokes over his singing, Richard traveled only doing stand-up. From then on, Richard began getting noticed. Eventually, he found himself in New York City under the mentorship of THE Woody Allen. After gaining attention and great reviews, Richard made TV appearances on shows such as The Merv Griffin Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Vegas came soon after. Despite all of the fame and fortune that came with his career in Vegas, Richard Pryor infamously walked away from it all. Due to the censorship and limitations that came along with Vegas, Richard felt that he could not fully be himself. He felt like audiences looked at him AS a joke rather than laughing AT his jokes. Seeking himself, Richard settled down in California. Feeling inspired and rejuvenated, Richard turned to film. He started out doing minor roles in films such as The Busy Body and Wild in the Streets. What really put him on the map however was his portrayal of a drug addicted piano player in Lady Sings the Blues, with Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday. From then on, his film career sky-rocketed. From The Silver Streak with Gene Wilder to The Wiz with Michael Jackson, Pryor was a force to be reckoned with. Famously known, Richard was given 4 million dollars to star in Superman III as the sidekick to the villain —more than the movie’s star, Christopher Reeve. Pleasantly surprised, he was publicly realized as a multi-faceted entertainer. Pryor also had a great TV career. He headlined his award winning shows The Richard Pryor Show and Pryor’s Place, had a variety show called A Party for Richard Pryor, and made many guest appearances on other shows. Pryor also dabbled in Writing (Sanford and Son plus two Lily Tomlin specials), and Directing (Blazing Saddles).

Regardless of his success, Pryor still struggled in his personal life. Richard’s relationships with women were tumultuous and short. All in all, Richard Pryor has been married seven different times—twice to the same woman. Richard also struggled with run-ins with the law, drug abuse, and health issues. In June of 1980, Richard Pryor set himself on fire as an attempt of suicide after free basing cocaine. Before that, Pryor’s health issues came to a head after he suffered his first heart attack. Instead of letting his hardships defeat him, he used them as material! After a long recovery, Pryor came back stronger than ever. A couple more Grammy awards, an autobiography, and many movie roles later (including his ICONIC performance as a famous comedian suffering serious burns due to a drug related accident in Jojo Dancer, Your Life is Calling), Richard Pryor became the first person ever to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center.

After a long fight with Multiple Sclerosis, Richard Pryor passed away after his third heart attack on December 10th, 2005. Paving the way for comedians up to now, Richard Pryor’s story and legacy remain pertinent and inspiring for all generations and walks of life.