On the eve of the Academy Awards and on the heels of the utterly disappointing announcement that Marlon Wayans will play Richard Pryor in an upcoming biopic, I am here to make the case that Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III should receive a posthumous lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Pryor’s cumulative accomplishments in Hollywood cover the gamut, from comedic cameos to underappreciated dramatic turns to screenwriting. He was the first real black movie star to follow Sidney Poitier and the first African American to helm his own studio-backed production company. His groundbreaking comedy and overall place in Hollywood history suggests a cultural figure with few peers. The only thing missing from his résumé now is an appropriate award that confirms his legacy.
Pryor twice served as host for the Oscars, in 1976 and again in 1982, becoming only the second African American to lead the storied broadcast, after Sammy Davis Jr. had broken down this barrier a few years earlier in 1972. Initially gaining cinematic attention for this portrayal of the fictional Piano Man in Oscar-nominated Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Pryor appeared in over 40 films and also holds screenwriting credits on a number of movies, including the Mel Brooks’ comedy classic Blazing Saddles (1974). He was also the producer, writer, director and star of his own autobiographical flick, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986).
In a career that spanned the Blaxploitation era of the early 1970s through the 1990s, Pryor moved from making several celebrated film cameos at the start of his career to becoming the first black movie star since Sidney Poitier by the 1980s. Pryor was considered such a draw that his salary dwarfed that of star Christopher Reeves in Superman III (1983), with Pryor’s $4 million salary being the highest an African-American actor had ever been paid at the time. Following the release of Superman III, Pryor signed a record $40 million deal with Columbia Pictures to start his own production company, Indigo Films. This, too, was historic.