December 1st marks what would have been the 77th birthday of Richard Pryor, one of the most influential stand-up comedians of all time. His daughter, Rain Pryor, gives us a look at the legendary comedian from a daughter’s eyes.
Pryor’s honest examinations of culture, racism, and social issues became an example for many upcoming artists. However, Pryor found his professional muse in his personal vulnerabilities, as well as in the community that surrounded him as a child.
Pryor in Peoria
Born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, he grew up in his paternal grandmother Marie’s brothel on Washington Street in the red light district of Peoria, Illinois.
When he was a boy, Pryor met an instructor named Juliette Whittaker at the Carver Community Center in Peoria. According to Scott Saul’s 2014 book, “Becoming Richard Pryor,” Pryor talked Whittaker into letting him join an already cast play of Rumplestiltskin. She quickly realized his potential. She wrote plays for him, and cast him as the comic master-of-ceremonies at the Center’s popular talent shows.
In 1960, Pryor began performing in Peoria as a stand-up comedian, offering timely one-liners and building a local following. But his style and cadence changed after Pryor became addicted to drugs, and he experienced a stage meltdown in Las Vegas. He polished his signature style of raw, personal storytelling, and his stage and film career spanned four decades. His projects were both offbeat and mainstream, and included The Muppet Movie and Stir Crazy with Gene Wilder, as well as co-writing Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks.
Here Comes the Rain
Daughter Rain Pryor was born in 1969 in Los Angeles. Shelly R. Bonus (originally Bonis), was the daughter of Danny Kaye’s manager, Herbert Bonis. Bonus was Pryor’s second wife. The marriage lasted approximately two years and, after it ended, Rain’s grandparents stepped in to help raise her.
As a child, Rain studied opera with renowned vocal coach Seth Riggs, who worked with many vocal artists including Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, 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,” says Rain.
Rain always knew she wanted to act, and although her father encouraged it, he asked her to wait until she finished high school. “ [He said] to always be honest with myself,” Rain says. “He would say, ‘If you don’t have fun performing, quit.’”
When she was in her final years at Beverly Hills High School, Rain moved in with her father. Surprisingly, Pryor was a strict parent, and he expected Rain to care for her younger brother Stephen at times. “Living with Dad was awesome,” she says. “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 debuted in ABC’s Head of the Class in the late 1980s, as character T.J.Jones. Her strong performance in that guest role became a recurring role in the TV sitcom. She went on to work on live stage as well as television, starring as Jackie on the Showtime series, Rude Awakening. Rain guest-starred on several television series including Chicago Hope and The Division. She made appearances on late night TV shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Tavis Smiley Show, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
Rain Pryor found her strength as a jazz and blues vocalist, playing to crowds in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Her performance CD, Rain Pryor Live in London was released in 2006.
Rain’s one-woman show, Fried Chicken and Latkes, looks at her own multicultural heritage from the eyes of several characters, including her father, Richard Pryor. She identifies with both her mother’s Jewish heritage and her father’s African-American roots, bringing her life into focus during her 90-minute show. Rain also published the book, Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor in 2007.
Rain is currently in development with IM Global TV on a television series and special, based on her solo show Fried Chicken & Latkes. For now, Rain is staying mum on the rest of the show’s cast. “That’s a great mystery, but when people find out, it’s gonna rock their worlds,” she teases. “I am excited to be a part of a great team.”
Richard Pryor suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS), and passed away in 2005. “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,” explains Rain. “MS effects the entire unit, and that knowledge gives us hope to deal. I also stress the importance of supporting research towards cures for MS.”
Rain became a mother to daughter, Lotus Marie, in 2008. “My parents did the best they could do,” says Rain. “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.”
Although Rain is aware of her father’s demons, she also remembers him as loving and generous. “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.”
When asked what her father Richard might say to Lotus Marie, Rain says, “ I think Dad would tell Lotus not to care what other people think, and to stay wide-eyed and curious about the world.”
Feature photo courtesy Rain Pryor.