Healthy Living

Multiple Sclerosis: Richard Pryor's Legacy

Photo credit: Richard Pryor by Alan Light

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was born on December 1st, 1940 to Gertrude L. and LeRoy “Buck Carter” Pryor. He grew up in a brothel in the red-light district of Peoria, Illinois, which was run by his grandmother, Marie Carter. After his mother abandoned him at the age of 10, Pryor was mostly raised by his grandmother – a tall and violent woman. When he was a young boy, Pryor met an instructor by the name of Juliette Whittaker at the Carver Community Center in Peoria. He talked her into letting him join the cast of her play Rumplestiltskin and it was then that Whittaker saw his potential. She soon began to write plays for him and cast him as a comic emcee at the Center’s talent shows.

In 1960, Pryor began to perform throughout Peoria as a stand-up comedian and he built a local following. However, his attitude and style changed when he became addicted to drugs. During one of his shows in Las Vegas, he experienced a meltdown on stage. Over the next 40 years, Pryor would become one of the greatest and most influential American stand-up comedians of all time. He even grew popular as an actor, known for his projects Stir Crazy and Silver Streak with Gene Wilder, as well as several others.

MS diagnosis and caretaking

Pryor suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS) and in December 2005, he passed away. “I spent 13 years working to bring awareness to family and caregivers about MS, and the importance of taking care of yourself when dealing with the person with MS. MS affects the entire unit, and that knowledge gives us hope to deal. I also stress the importance of supporting research towards cures for MS,” said his daughter, Rain Pryor.

Today, Pryor remains a legend who is known for his colorful language during his stand-up comedy shows and his honest outlooks on social, cultural, and racial issues. December 1st 2017 would have marked his 77th birthday and his daughter Rain gives a glimpse into growing up with a legendary comedian as a father. Although Rain acknowledges her father’s dark moments, she also remembers him as a loving father. “Daddy was a good man. I loved to fish with him, sitting quietly on the volcanic rocks of Hana, Maui – where we had a home – and casting off the rocks into the ocean below,” she said.

Growing up as his daughter

Rain Pryor was born on July 16th, 1969 in Los Angeles, California. Her mother, Shelley R. (née Bonis) was a Jewish go-go dancer. After her mother and father’s marriage had ended, Rain’s Jewish maternal grandparents stepped in to help raise her. “My dad’s Richard Pryor. My mother, Shelley, was a poor Jewish woman. Imagine, if you will, Beverly Hills in the early ‘70s. Here I am, this mixed-race child [with] my golden skin, my big poufy hair ― because Mom knew nothing about a pressing comb ― [and] my mom’s blond-haired, blue-eyed, looking like Cher, wearing dashikis,” she said. As a young child, Rain studied opera with a vocal coach by the name of Seth Riggs, who also worked with other vocal artists such as Ray Charles and Michael Jackson. “That allowed me to appreciate music more and the vocalist. I was able to better understand that the voice is truly an instrument,” said Rain.

Rain had always known that she wanted to become an actress, but her father encouraged her to pursue her dream after finishing high school. “He said to always be honest with myself. He would say, ‘If you don’t have fun performing, quit,’” she said. During her last few years at Beverly Hills High School, Rain moved in with her father. Her father was a strict parent, and at times, he expected Rain to take care of her younger brother Stephen. “Living with Dad was awesome. Dad was always transparent. Maybe too much so. However, it helped me remain very clear about my choices in life even if it meant being or feeling alone at times,” she said.

In the late 1980s, Rain was cast as the character T.J Jones in ABC’s Head of the Class. Her popular performance as a guest star earned her a recurring role in the TV show. Throughout the years, she went on to star in the popular TV show Rude Awakening and she even guest-starred in several other TV shows, including The Division and Chicago Hope. Rain also made appearances on late TV shows such as The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Rain started performing as a jazz and blues vocalist and in 2006, her CD, Rain Pryor Live in London, was released. In 2007, she published a book called Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor. “You're either going to go down the path of self-destructiveness or you're not ... Success is the best revenge; it's the ultimate ha-ha. Statistically, I should be strung out ... but you won't see me in a hospital any time soon,” she said.

She went on to perform a solo show, known as Fried Chicken and Latkes, which takes a look at racism in the 1960s and early 1970s and her own multiracial heritage from the perspectives of several characters, including her father. “I address race as an issue, given that I happen to be biracial. People tell me when I’m onstage, ‘I see your dad [in you]. I see him in the things you talk about,’. I talk about the fact that I was called a n - - - - r when I was a kid,” she said.

“Doing it … keeps him alive”

In the show, Rain brings into focus her proud but ‘guilty’ upbringing with her mother’s Jewish heritage and her father’s African-American background. “It was a world that my father, for all his faults, helped to sensitize to the appalling consequences of racism. People miss him and come to see my show. Doing it kind of keeps him alive,” she said. Currently, she’s working with IM Global TV on a TV series that would be based on her solo show Fried Chicken and Latkes. “That’s a great mystery, but when people find out, it’s gonna rock their worlds. I am excited to be a part of a great team,” she said.

In 2008, Rain gave birth to her daughter, Lotus Marie. “My parents did the best they could do. I waited till my late thirties to have Lotus and to finally meet the right man to spend my life with. I don’t hold their experiences against them. I’m a great mom and soon to be even greater wife because I learned from them and my own earlier mistakes. In terms of parenting, I am a much more stable parent then mine were or he was. My family life keeps my career in order. Watching him taught me that,” said Rain.

Her father’s most valuable lesson to her was to always tell the truth – “He just said, ‘Be an honest performer’.” When reflecting on what her father’s words of wisdom would have been to her daughter, Rain said – “I think Dad would tell Lotus not to care what other people think, and to stay wide-eyed and curious about the world.”