One of the more revolutionary, and controversial, figures in the history of standup comedy, Richard Pryor was born in Peoria on December 1, 1940, to a married prostitute. Pryor grew up on the south side of Peoria in a poverty made worse by severe racial prejudice. As he summarized his childhood experiences, "I saw (things) that would cause an adult nightmares." In spite of this, Richard Pryor would grow to international stardom and bring a raw, wild approach to standup comedy that continues to remain influential.
His parents divorced when Richard was ten, and he moved in with his grandmother at that time. Later taking his lead from idol, Bill Cosby, Pryor would transform his difficult childhood situations into material and characters in his stand-up performances. A teacher, Miss Parker, gave him a head start by allowing him to tell jokes each morning before class, if he would make an attempt to do his work. His classmates' laughter gave him a rare feeling of accomplishment, and the dream was birthed.
Pryor dropped out of school in 1955, working at a packing company and at Caterpillar until he got his show business start in 1960 at the Peoria nightclub Harold's. Branching out to audiences beyond the Midwest, Richard arrived in New York in 1963, appearing on The Tonight Show in 1966. Initially appearing as a more traditional nightclub comedian, by the late 60s Pryor's material had shifted into more controversial terrain. Laced with frequent profanity, Pryor's standup work touched on topics of racial politics, sexuality, drug use and raw autobiography in a manner that was groundbreaking for its time.
Married and divorced six times and a father of seven, drug and alcohol abuse landed him at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1990. Pryor was beset with numerous health problems in his later years; diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, Pryor was also the survivor of a heart attack in 1990 and a quadruple bypass the following year. On December 10th, 2005, Pryor passed away from a heart attack.
Pryor's professional career included 45 movies, an Emmy for best comedy writing, five Grammy awards for best comedy recording, and additional industry-wide recognition, including the initial presentation of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1998. In 2002, the city of Peoria renamed a section of Sheridan Road on the south side of the city as Richard Pryor Place. Pryor's groundbreaking standup work has influenced a number of high profile comedians, including Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Bill Hicks, Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle, and continues to be a touchstone for much of modern standup comedy.
-Submitted by Roy A. Roberts