In 1978, I was taking an art class at Chicago’s Art Institute. While walking through one of the African artifacts rooms, I was stunned to find Richard Pryor on one occasion.
I was so shocked. I could not believe my eyes. Here I was in a room by myself with Richard Pryor, who was wearing a London Fog raincoat and carrying a shopping bag. It appeared he was trying to be somewhat incognito because people in the outer rooms did not notice him. So I smiled, he smiled, and I quietly mouthed hello.
As Pryor exited the room I wanted to yell to everyone, “Look, there goes Richard Pryor!”
This was my Richard Pryor moment. But his albums, movies and TV show will always be with me. Although most of Pryor’s comedy cannot be repeated here, a lot of his comedy routines had very strong social meanings. Pryor had many movies to his credit, some memorable while others like The Toy were not worthy of his talent. In Lady Sings The Blues with Diana Ross playing the role of Billie Holiday, Pryor was excellent as Piano Man. Pryor was excellent in portraying several characters in the movie Which Way Is Up. In it, he plays a migrant worker, an 88-year-old man and a preacher.
In his album “Richard Pryor … is it something I said?” the selection called “Just Us” is vintage Pryor. The routine in part goes: “I went to jail for income tax evasion. … I didn’t know anything about taxes. I told the judge I forgot. … He said, ‘You’ll remember next year.’ They give us time like it’s lunch in the courts. You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find: ‘Just Us.'”
A favorite character he was often requested to do was Mudbone, a cantankerous old man who espoused advice about life through his colorful and hilarious stories. In many African-American homes we all have heard the “long tales” about someone who came up North because of racism, and we all knew a Mudbone character?”maybe your cousin, uncle, grandfather or father.
Pryor’s take on Mudbone was classic. Mudbone “dipped snuff” and would tell stories. I loved him. You learn something when you listen to old people. They ain’t all fools. You don’t get to be old being a fool. Mudbone claimed to have driven up North from Tupelo, Miss … on a tractor.
Some other movies of Pryor included, Uptown Saturday Night, Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Moving, Superman III, Car Wash, Blue Collar and the semi-autobiographical film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling.
Pryor was born in Peoria on Dec. 1, 1940. His birth name was Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor. He was married five times and fathered seven children: Renee, born 1957; Richard Jr., born 1962; Elizabeth, born 1967; Rain, born 1969; Stephen, born 1984; Kelsey-born 1987; and Franklin Matthew, born also in 1987.
In 1998, Pryor was the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize. He was quoted as saying; “It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man; now that’s funny.”
“Seriously, though, two things people throughout history have in common are hatred and humor,” Pryor said. “I am proud that, such as Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred.”