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How the Army Turned Richard Pryor from a ‘Truck Driver’ into an ‘Actor’

Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor (Network Films)

Long before Richard Pryor became one of the most revered comedians in history, he was a kid from Peoria, Illinois, who thought joining the Army was his ticket out of a boring life and a way to see the world.

Millions of Americans with similar goals have enjoyed success in the military, picking up discipline and social skills while serving their country. Pryor was not one of those individuals.

Pryor struggled through his Army service and ended up as one of those guys who agreed to early discharge “under honorable conditions” rather than face time in the brig.

The comedian became one of the biggest stars of the 1970s and ‘80s, releasing his live performance films in theaters and starring in a series of successful features (“Silver Streak,” “Car Wash,” “Stir Crazy”). He also developed a drug habit that led to a serious accident in 1980 that left him covered in burn scars. Pryor fell ill with multiple sclerosis in the mid-’90s and died in 2005 at age 65.

(Time Life)

If you don’t know much about Pryor, the new Time Life DVD set “The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection: Uncensored” is an education in a box. It includes all four of his most famous concert films, plus some amazing television appearances on “The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Dick Cavett Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” The set also includes the autobiographical feature “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling,” all episodes of his controversial NBC television series and a pair of documentary films about his career.

The above Navy bit is from a January 1966 appearance on Griffin’s late-night show. Pryor’s career is just getting started, and Griffin keeps telling the audience that his show was the comedian’s first national exposure.

When Pryor was growing up in Peoria, he heard stories about Germany from returning Black soldiers that made the experience sound like a dream. They described more freedom and less racism than they faced at home, and the young Pryor saw military service as a way to escape his chaotic home life.

After enlistment in April 1959, Pryor was shipped to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for Corps of Engineers training. Unfortunately, the base had a reputation among Black troops as being one of the most racist in the Army. The young soldier’s luck didn’t improve when he was assigned to train as a plumber. His romantic ideas about Army service weren’t going well.

Things got worse when he shipped out to Germany. The glowing reports from returning soldiers came from men who were stationed in relatively open-minded areas of the country. Pryor was assigned to Kaiserslautern, a base in the former Nazi stronghold of the Rhineland. Black troops weren’t welcome in the local taverns, and the base was staffed predominantly by officers from the American South.

He was transferred to Baumholder and assigned the task of guarding a Nike missile at a remote part of the camp. He faced discipline for missing reveille in January 1960, but got in his first serious trouble when he started screaming at a colonel. “Gringo monkey!” he yelled. “Chingada madre!” If you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll have to translate it on your own. It’s way up near the top of the profanity list. Why was Pryor speaking Spanish? He never explained.

The young soldier held on until July 1960, when things got weird at a screening of the Lana Turner movie “Imitation of Life,” a drama about a young, light-skinned Black girl who tries to have the life she wants by passing as White.

In his autobiography “Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences,” Pryor says a White GI was making fun of the movie when one of his friends started a fight with the laughing soldier. When it became apparent that his friend was losing, Pryor says he pulled out a switchblade and tried stabbing the GI in the back. The White GI didn’t even notice, so Pryor threw away the knife and took off.

He was arrested and thrown in the stockade. Now it was obvious that Pryor and the United States Army were never going to be a good match, so the brass offered him the chance to depart quietly.

Related: 11 Stand-Up Comics Who Served in the Military

The Army had Pryor for less than 18 months, but it changed his life. He saw just enough of the world to realize that he wanted a life outside of Peoria, and the Army proved that he’d have to find his own way in the world. When he filled out his paperwork at his induction, he listed his occupation as “truck driver.” At his exit physical, he called himself an “actor.”

Pryor used his Army experiences in his early comedy routines. He was especially inspired by his basic combat training instructor. “It really blew my mind,” he said , “because I thought the Army was things like hunting, camping, a little fishing … I learned to kill from a guy who killed in World War II, and then they couldn’t stop him. So they gave him a job. ‘Can’t let him on the streets, so we’ll let him train these guys for World War III.’”

Check out the full routine from his 1968 LP “Richard Pryor.”


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