Yet for all this, Pryor has seldom, if ever, been fully credited for his immense acting skills. Though many celebrate his comedy, it was Pryor’s acting ability in conjunction with his comedic timing that made him such a formidable talent. His improvisational flow as Slim in The Mack (1973) could serve as a method acting lesson for aspiring thespians, while his brief, but charismatic appearances in films like Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Car Wash (1976) basically steal the show. Films like Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980) would feature Pryor in a successful buddy-flick duo with actor Gene Wilder. Pryor played three different, equally hilarious characters in Which Way is Up (1977). However, it is Pryor’s dramatic work in a film like Blue Collar (1978) that clearly shows that he was more than just another funny man. Watching Pryor lay back in the cut among the star-studded ensemble of Murphy, Redd Foxx and Della Reese, in Harlem Nights (1989) is but another example of his underrated abilities as a dramatic actor.
For all this dramatic work, Pryor will always be known as a comedian, first and foremost. His comedy work has been recognized across the board, from receiving the inaugural Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center in 1998, to being cited as a major influence by virtually every comedian working today. One can hear echoes of Pryor in some unexpected places, like Billy Bob Thornton’s memorable character, Carl, appropriating Pryor’s famous “Yeah, and it’s deep, too,” joke in Sling Blade (1997). Pryor’s iconic status continues to live with us as indicated most recently by the ubiquitous Richard Pryor T-shirt in Judd Apatow’s Superbad (2007).
The film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert debuted in 1979, featuring one of Pryor’s live standup performances from a 1978 Long Beach, Calif., show. Live in Concert marked the first time that the film of a live comedy performance would serve as a feature film. Pryor is at his best as he walks the stage in his red, silk shirt making fun of himself, talking in unvarnished terms about race—and even giving a shoutout to former Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton, who is sitting in the audience that night. The film cost very little to produce, but it quickly made a grip at the box office, setting the standard for future standup comedy concert films to come.
Pryor, of course, made his name as a standup comedian, long before appearing in film. Though he began his early career in the 1960s as an imitator of the much more mainstream Bill Cosby, Pryor would transform his routine by the early 1970s after having spent time with people like Newton and the Panthers in the Bay Area during this particularly militant phase of the Black Power struggle. His ‘70s-era comedy albums are nothing short of masterpieces. Albums like Craps (1971); That Nigger’s Crazy (1974); …Is It Something I Said? (1975); Bicentennial Nigger (1976); and Wanted: Live in Concert (1978) form the core of his incredible body of work.