X

Richard Pryor: Comedy star with flaws was ‘best dad he knew how to be’

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations and comedians like Richard Pryor that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

NOTE: During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

I’m sure most of you know the man Richard Pryor from his comedy, films and his place in history as the top comic of all time. I’m here to let you know of the man I knew, my father Richard Pryor.

During my early years I never truly understood what the world knew about my father. The man they knew told jokes, spoke with animated gestures and facial expressions, and was larger than life. The man I knew off stage was a quiet, shy, introvert who surrounded himself with family.

Although my parents were married when I was born, my father left shortly after my birth to pursue his dreams of being a comic. He told my mom, Patricia, that he would be back in three months. It would be three years before his return. Dad was surprised when he saw me again and I was walking, pigeon-toed and all. My mother exclaimed “What did you expect? It’s been three years.”

» MORE: Full Black History Month coverage

» RELATED: Black in Atlanta: The city influences everything

I actually don’t remember my dad in my life until I was about six years old. He came back to Peoria, Ill., our birthplace, for his dad’s (Grandpa Bucks) funeral. I knew instinctively something or someone special was coming. My great grandmother, who I called Grandma Marie, was making sure the house was in order and preparing all of the wonderful foods she had expertise in. The smell of fried chicken, sweet potatoes, greens and cornbread filled the air.

I also received a fresh haircut, and my mom purchased me new clothes from K-Mart. Which was considered a treat that rarely happened.

» RELATED: Richard Pryor's mixture of pain, brilliance pushed comedy's limits

Comedian Richard Pryor clowns around with his son Richard Pryor Jr. in the 1970s.
Comedian Richard Pryor clowns around with his son Richard Pryor Jr. in the 1970s.

Dad arrived in a limousine along with this white lady named Shelley. She was slender with long, flowing blonde hair.

With my mom prompting me to greet this man who was my dad, I went to him to say hello. I shyly hugged him as he pulled out a Crown Royal bag filled with coins and bills. He told me to reach inside and to keep what I pulled out. A shiny silver coin rested in my hand. I gleamed for joy as I pressed it harder into my palm, satisfied with not knowing that the paper was worth more.

Over the years I would see my dad several times a year, spending most summers with him when I was old enough to travel alone to Los Angeles. There was a distinct difference between living in Peoria and living in LA. Housekeepers, cooks and drivers. A place where I first tasted the finer foods in life. A house where I didn’t have to lift a finger. Going back home, my mother would de-program me by making me take out the garbage and wash the dishes. I thank God I could adapt to the finer things in life but was smart enough to know I had to work for finer things in life.

Along with my sisters, Elizabeth and Rain, we would go on wonderful adventures. One Christmas season dad rented a beautiful house in Jamaica. We experienced the touristy things, but also experienced how the locals lived.

» RELATED: When Richard Pryor abandoned the N-word

Comedian Richard Pryor in candid photographs with his son, Richard Pryor Jr.
Comedian Richard Pryor in candid photographs with his son, Richard Pryor Jr.

This trip was my first time I experienced dad mad. During an argument, I told him to kiss my ass and stormed away from the dinner table. As I walked away, I could hear something whistling in the air. Then I felt a wooden salad bowl slam into my head.

I had a wonderful opportunity to see dad at his craft on several of his films like “Greased Lighting,” where I met the beautiful Pam Grier, and “The Bingo Long Traveling Stars and Motor Kings,” with James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams.

Another Christmas was spent at our home in Hana, Maui, where I saw the best of dad. No pressure, just relaxing near the pool or riding the jeep to the beach. During this trip we were shaken by news of my mom’s arrest for trying to kill my stepfather with a knife. She got no jail time and my dad paid all of her legal fees.

My most memorable time of my dad, however, was going on the road with him during his stand-up comedy tour across the country. After many days of room service, dad asked me before one show if I would do something.

Wanting to please my dad, I said yes. Dad looked at me seriously and said would you mind introducing me on stage?

»RELATED: Chitlin’ Circuit: Black performers’ soulful showcase during segregation

Richard Pryor, seen here in 1976, died in 2005. PAUL HOSEFROS/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Richard Pryor, seen here in 1976, died in 2005. PAUL HOSEFROS/THE NEW YORK TIMES

My heart said yes but my mind said no, but I’m so glad to have had that chance. Running to center stage barely able to reach the microphone and saying the words I will never forget: “Ladies and gentlemen, my father, Richard Pryor.”

The joy of hearing the enormous eruption of applause was overwhelming. This is when I realized dad was a star.

I have been through many highs and lows with my dad, but I never doubted his love. During his last years, I saw dad just once in six years. No phone calls no visits, nothing.

I finally got a chance to see him in January 2005.

Dad was nothing of the man he used to be.

Bloated from kidney issues, he was no longer capable of speaking. His fast, sharp tongue had been replaced with grunts.

The last few years had been difficult. Down on my knees speaking to him at his level in his motorized chair, I told him that my mom had died of cancer.

His eyes welled up with tears as he spoke not a word. I hugged him and kissed his cheek and forehead. As I walked out the door I burst into tears. I knew it would be the last time. He passed the following December.

I realize that dad wasn’t perfect. He had flaws. But he was the best dad he knew how to be.

Yes, he gave us things. But the best thing he gave us was his heart.

Richard Pryor Jr. is the eldest of Richard Pryor’s children. His memoir, “In a Pryor Life,” was released last April. He lives in Harlem.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.