LeRoy ‘Buck’ Pryor

“I loved him but I could never talk to him. He had a child but he didn't need a child. It was hard for him to be placed in that position.”

— Richard Pryor, on his relationship with his father

In Richard Pryor’s comedy routines, his father Buck is known for two things: his powerful fists and his ice-cold honesty. He’s an imposing figure who offers little support and sympathy, cutting Richard down as equally with a brutal remark as with a blow to the chest.

In more straightahead interviews, Pryor recalled him in much the same terms. “You could be in an orphanage,” Pryor remembered him threatening. “I chose you, so be cool.” Yet Pryor also drew comic inspiration from his father, whom he credited with an honesty so harsh that it was bracing — unforgettably real.

Born June 7, 1915 in Decatur, Illinois, LeRoy “Buck” Pryor was the first child of Richard’s beloved grandmother Marie Pryor. At age eighteen, he won a Golden Gloves boxing tournament in Chicago, and never forgot how to score a knockout. After his mother opened a brothel in Peoria in the mid-1930s, Buck played the role of the muscle in the family business.

There he came to know a young Gertrude Thomas, a working girl in Marie’s brothel on North Washington Street. Gertrude gave birth to Richard in December 1940, and after Buck was drafted by the Army in late-1943, the two married.  Their marriage was tempestuous and, like the relationship of Buck’s parents, physically violent. On New Year’s Eve, 1946, Gertrude took a five-year-old Richard and fled to her family’s home in Springfield, filing divorce papers in which she reported that Buck had acted with “extreme and repeated cruelty.” But despite Gertrude’s pleas for custody, the court sided with Buck in the ensuing divorce trial, and Richard was returned to the custody of his father.

Buck Pryor’s first run-in with the law was an arrest for disorderly conduct at age fifteen, and he continued to run afoul of the law throughout his life. He had inherited from his own parents a skeptical attitude towards the law and a willingness to back up his own authority with physical force — without, it appears, his mother Marie’s larger sense of justice for all. Only seven months after joining the Army, Buck was sent home with a Section 8 discharge. Less than a year later, he was indicted for assaulting a black sergeant on North Washington Street and robbing him of $106 in cash and assorted personal effects.

He steered clear of legal trouble through the 1950s, during which time he married Richard’s stepmother Ann (with whom he had a longer-lasting relationship) and ran a family trucking business. But in the 1960s, he returned to running brothels and came back into police crosshairs. Tellingly, when police raided his Aiken Avenue brothel in 1965, the fifty-year-old Buck took off and ran — and not only eluded the police for several hours but also managed to escape with the relatively small penalty of $20. (Two women captured in the raid paid $200 each.)

Buck made a habit of tangling with authority, but he radiated an authority of his own. In family photos, he tends to look at the camera with a cool and world-weary stare, his lips curling into a thin smile. When he died of a heart attack at age 53, a phrase lodged in his son Richard’s head: “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

Buck and Ann Pryor in an unguarded moment on Aiken Alley, 1951