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.
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.
Somewhere along the way, Pryor morphed into a movie star. But his transition from the hip, aggressive, militant, hedonistic comic to the more gentrified, user-friendly mainstream celebrity never really worked. Though Pryor appeared in films like The Toy (1982), Brewster’s Millions (1985) and Critical Condition (1987), things had clearly changed. In Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), Pryor announced that after returning from Africa he would no longer be using the word “nigger” in his routines. This was a memorable declaration. Pryor had liberated the word through his comedy routines in the ‘70s, setting the stage for hip-hop’s reclamation of this contested term from the late-‘80s going forward. Yet his refusal to continue uttering the term, along with his decision to no longer do his famous Mudbone routine, signaled that Pryor was molding his persona for more mainstream tastes. The problem is, after all these alterations, Pryor was no longer as funny.
In many ways, the 1980s were the last days of the whole black “crossover” phenomena. Up until then, the prevailing thought was that African-American entertainers with a large black fan base needed to change their image in order to be accepted by larger (read: white) audiences. We have hip- hop to thank for the end of this. But before hip-hop could fully evolve, Pryor was one of the last casualties of such a dreaded practice. Soon his physical ailments would keep him from performing. He lived the remaining years of his life away from the spotlight. Later generations don’t understand just how groundbreaking and influential Pryor was during his prime.
When discussing Pryor’s legacy, it is not something that can be reduced to one or two signature accomplishments. In order to fully appreciate his greatness, one must study what the French would call his oeuvre, his entire body of work. Transcending standup comedy, film and television, Pryor was an American original, a cultural icon who deserves the proper recognition that befits a historical figure of his stature. And maybe if we’re lucky, Hollywood can bestow this honor on Pryor before Marlon Wayans goes about destroying his legacy.
Dr. Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His blog is Notorious Ph.D.