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Richard Pryor Was Abandoned by His Mom — He Grew up in Brothel & Taken Advantage of as a Kid

Monica Otayza
Oct 19, 2021
11:00 A.M.

Legendary comedian Richard Pryor is best remembered for his crass and self-incriminating jokes. However, what many don't know is behind all of those jokes was a traumatic life that started very early in his childhood.


Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was born on December 1, 1940. He lived in Peoria, Illinois, where he was abandoned by his mother and grew up seeing his abusive father for part of his life during his childhood.

Pryor was one of four children raised by his grandmother in a brothel. He had to watch his mother perform sexual acts with other people, one of which is the town's mayor before she ultimately disappeared from his life.

Richard Pryor is photographed at 'Night of 100 Stars' event March 8, 1982 in New York City. | Source: Getty Images

Richard Pryor is photographed at 'Night of 100 Stars' event March 8, 1982 in New York City. | Source: Getty Images


In his 1974 album, Pryor revisits his teenage years with his father. He opens up about being abused, especially when he would come home later than the curfew imposed by his dad.


At six, he was raped by a neighbor and molested by a priest during catechism. Due to the trauma he endured at home; he often escaped reality by watching movies in the cinema.

American comedian Richard Pryor during a stage show, circa 1977. | Source: Getty Images

American comedian Richard Pryor during a stage show, circa 1977. | Source: Getty Images


In the cinema, where he sat in the segregated "black" seats, he watched the likes of Howard Hawks and John Ford, which began his ambition to become a star like them.

His first performance stint came when he was 12 when a supervisor at a recreational facility, Juliette Whittaker, asked him to star in a local production of "Rumplestiltskin." She was so impressed by his talent that she would arrange talent shows to showcase him.



At the age of 14, he was expelled from school and began working. He had many jobs, such as being a janitor at a local strip club, a shoe-shiner, a drummer, a meatpacker, a truck driver, and even a billiard hall attendant at one point.

He joined the army from 1958 to 1960, but that also ended after an altercation with a fellow G.I. After his army stint, he performed in several amateur shows. It was there that he realized audiences preferred his jokes instead of his singing.



By 1966, he was on television, appearing on shows like Rudy Vallee's "On Broadway Tonight" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." This allowed him to work in Las Vegas as the opening act for Bobby Darin at Flamingo Hotel.

After his stint in Las Vegas, he moved to Hollywood and starred in films like "Lady Sings the Blues." In 1980, he formed his own production company and appeared in almost 50 movies, several of which star Gene Wilder.



As if his career wasn't impressive enough, he started to write as well. He wrote for several shows, including two "Lily Tomlin" specials, one of which earned him an Emmy and a Writers Guild Award.

Despite everything he's done in his career, Pryor was best known for his live comedy acts, where he would speak about life's many truths. He would touch on black life on the streets, drugs, sex, and the many tragedies he experienced in his life.



Pryor experienced many troubles throughout his life, and it all began in his childhood due to the environment he lived in. As an adult, he suffered from cocaine addiction, had seven tumultuous marriages, two heart attacks, and had quadruple bypass surgery.

He even suffered third-degree burns in over 50% of his body after setting himself on fire at one point in his life. However, after everything that happened, one event that changed him was his visit to Kenya in 1979.



While he was there, he decided to condemn the use of racial slurs. He abandoned the use of such slurs during his stage performances, and fans weren't happy. He received hate mail, death threats, and attacks on his home from former fans. Despite these occurrences, he stuck by his beliefs and continued.

In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system. This did not stop him from performing until 1992, where he would perform in West Hollywood while referencing his ailment and being in a wheelchair.



Towards the end of his life, he was away from the spotlight battling M.S. privately. In fact, during those times, there were numerous reports of him "dying" despite him still being alive. Throughout his career, Pryor tackled the topic of death multiple times.

One time, he referenced his father's death, saying he actually died while having sex at the age of 57. These are the types of monologues he used about his life throughout his career.



However, while his comedy scripts often included glimpses of his life, he also made sure to give back to other people in his own little ways. He once gave away his $8000 paycheck from Roxy Theater in L.A. to heart attack victim Jackie Wilson and hunger fighter Dick Gregory.

Pryor had five wives, but he was married seven times. His first marriage was to Patricia Price from 1960 to 1961 before marrying Shelley R. Bonus in 1968.



In 1977, he married Deborah McGuire, and they split up a year after. He then married Jennifer Lee in 1981, but this too ended in divorce after a year.

All of his marriages lasted a year, including the one he had with Flynn Belaine. They were married from 1986 to 1987 and then again from 1990 to 1991.



By June 2001, he decided to remarry Jennifer Lee, and they stayed together until his death on December 10, 2005. Pryor died at the age of 65 after suffering a third heart attack.

He is survived by his seven children from six different women. His children are Renee, Richard Jr., Elizabeth Ann, Rain, Steven, Kelsey, and Franklin. He wasn't too close to his children, but his son Richard Jr. recalls how it was like growing up knowing his dad was a famous comedian.



At the age of 12, he realized his dad wasn't like all the other dads. Opening up about how his relatives would be frantic whenever his father would visit him, he shared:

"I knew I couldn’t listen to his albums or anything. I would have to sneak out and do what I had to do so I could listen to exactly what I wasn’t allowed to hear."


Ultimately, one thing that Richard Jr. is thankful for despite his complicated relationship with his dad was the fact that he was brought up with the best of both worlds. His father showed him a lavish lifestyle, while his mother taught him humility.

Despite everything, Richard Jr. rushed to his father's side when he was struggling. He followed in his footsteps, hoping to carry on the legacy of being a Pryor.

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