This Day in History: December 1st

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Trailblazing actor and comedian, Richard Pryor, was born on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois. His comedy routine drew on many issues of the time and his style was reflective of fellow comedians Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory. 

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, life experiences as a child led him to find solace in movies. His mother, Gertrude, was a prostitute and his father was a pimp. Pryor’s grandmother raised him in the brothel she operated and where both of his parents worked.

Pryor was the class clown in school and developed an interest in acting during his teenage years. He was cast in a production of Rumpelstiltskin by Juliette Whittaker, the director of a local community center. Whittaker believed in his talent and encouraged him throughout the years.

After being expelled from school by the age of 14, Pryor worked several odd jobs until he joined the military in 1958. He only served in the military for two years before he was discharged for fighting with another soldier. 

He returned home, got married and started a family with Patricia Price in 1960 but the marriage did not last long. After ending his marriage, Pryor began to pursue a career in the entertainment industry and found work as a stand-up comic. He played in Midwestern African American clubs in such cities as East St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

By the late 1960s, Pryor found some industry success by securing a few small parts on the big screen and he released his first self-titled comedy album. However, Pryor stepped away from standup comedy after growing tired of the limitations being placed on his acts. During his break, he spent time in Berkley, California where he met Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton and other figures involved in the counterculture movement. 

Pryor’s career reached mainstream success as an actor and comedian after receiving positive reviews for his role in the biopic, Lady Sings the Blues and starred Diana Ross. Pryor’s fan consisted of individuals from all racial backgrounds and his career as an actor was thriving by the late 1970s.

Off-screen, Pryor was dealing with issues of substance abuse. In 1980, his life took a turn for the worst when Pryor suffered third-degree burns on more than 50 percent of his body after lighting himself on fire. Pryor went through a long recovery but continued to perform and make appearances. By the end of his career, Pryor was confined to a wheelchair.

Pryor became the first person to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center. He spent his final years in California performing and advocating for animal rights. On December 10, 2005, Pryor died of a heart attack at a Los Angeles area hospital.

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