Richard Pryor's Stint In The Army Almost Landed Him A Serious Criminal Charge

Fans of stand-up comedy are more than familiar with Richard Pryor. Generally regarded as one of the all-time great comics, his contributions to the form are immeasurable. First hitting the scene in the 1960s, he rose to prominence in the 1970s for his hard-hitting yet intelligent observations on everyday life. Pryor broke down racial barriers in an era when Black people were still largely underrepresented in popular culture and helped pave the way for countless Black comedians to make names for themselves. He won a slew of prestigious awards throughout his career, including a Primetime Emmy, multiple Grammys, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and more, per IMDb. In addition to his work in comedy, Pryor was also an accomplished actor, starring in such films and TV shows as "Silver Streak," "The Wiz," "Stir Crazy," and many others.

However, before Richard Pryor established himself as one of the greatest comedy practitioners who ever lived, he lived a mundane life in Peoria, Illinois, and had dreams for something bigger. According to Military, Pryor was enchanted by stories he heard from Black veterans whose military travels took them to places that had less racism than in the United States, and so he enlisted in the Army in 1959. Too bad his experience wouldn't live up to his dreams: he was first stationed in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, which was infamous for its bigotry towards Black people, according to Military. Little did Pryor know that things were going to get worse for him.


From the very beginning, it was obvious that Richard Pryor was a terrible fit for the Army. According to Military, one of Pryor's first instances of disciplinary action came when he was stationed in Baumholder, Germany where he ignored the morning's first call. A rebellious soul even at this early stage of his life, Pryor followed up his first insubordination when he let loose a string of Spanish profanities (which are too strong to be printed here) on a colonel.

However, the incident that really got Pryor in deep trouble with the higher-ups occurred in 1960. As described in the New Yorker, this racially-charged episode took place during a screening of the 1959 film, "Imitation of Life," which tells the story of how a young mixed-race woman with light skin tries to pass herself off as a white girl. Apparently, a white soldier laughed a little too hard for Pryor's taste, especially during the more racist parts of the plot, and so Pryor and a couple of other guys ended up jumping and stabbing the soldier, who survived. Pryor was put in jail for a short time for what he did. Instead of facing a more serious punishment, Pryor was given the chance to be discharged from the Army in 1960, an offer that he took. 


Richard Pryor's time in the Army was massively impactful on him and his career in comedy, even though his stint lasted for less than two years. It's surprising to think that the military would inspire someone to go into entertainment, but that seems to be the case with Pryor; Military states that Pryor first enlisted in the Army as "truck driver" while his exit papers have him down as "actor." His experiences in the military even made their way into his comedy, like in this bit where he says he "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.'"

Interestingly, around a decade after Pryor was discharged from the Army and his career in show business was starting to take off, he starred in the 1970 TV movie "Carter's Army," which tells the story of a band of Black soldiers who are led by a racist white officer. Little is known about Pryor's experience making the film, but it's safe to assume it wasn't hard for him to get into character.