Dick Gregory, Trailblazer of Stand-Up Comedy, Civil Rights Activist and Comedian, Transitions at 84
Dick Gregory, a pioneering force of comedy in the 1960s who parlayed his career as a stand-up comic into a life of social and political activism, has died Saturday (Aug. 19) of heart failure, his rep confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 84.
"It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory departed this earth tonight in Washington, D.C.," his son Christian Gregory said via a statement from his father's rep. "The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time."
"He was one of the sweetest, smartest, most loving people one could ever know," his publicist of 50 years, Steve Jaffe, tells THR. "I just hope that God is ready for some outrageously funny times." A full statement and details of Gregory's funeral will be released Sunday, said Jaffe.
According to an Aug. 17 statement written by his son, Gregory was recently hospitalized.
Regarded as the first African-American comic to perform regularly in front of white audiences, Gregory appeared on all of the top TV talk shows of the 1960s and 1970s.
The St. Louis native cynically satirized racism and other social ills during his routines ("Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?"). As a way to mine his always-timely material, Gregory followed a lifelong habit of stripping articles out of newspapers and magazines. His act was smart and rarely employed profanity.
Gregory's big break came in 1961 when he was booked into the Playboy Club in downtown Chicago as a one-night replacement for Prof. Irwin Corey, a white comic who didn't want to work seven nights a week.
"When I started, a black comic couldn't work a white nightclub. You could sing, you could dance, but you couldn't stand flat-footed and talk -- then the system would know how brilliant black folks was," Gregory recalled in a 2016 interview.
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner had spotted Gregory performing for a black audience, and he was paid $50 for the Playboy Club show -- a huge payday for him at the time. One of Gregory's jokes: "Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, 'We don't serve colored people here.' I said, 'That's all right, I don't eat colored people. Being me a whole fried chicken.' "
The crowd during that first show, mostly white executives from a frozen-food company, loved him. He stayed on at the Playboy Club for three weeks (the gig turned into three years), and the attention got him a profile in Time magazine -- "Dick Gregory, 28, has become the first Negro comedian to make his way into the nightclub big time."
He was invited to perform on The Tonight Show in 1962, but Gregory said he wouldn't go unless he was able to sit down next to host Jack Paar after his routine and be interviewed. A black performer had never done that before.
"I went in, and as I sat on the couch, talking about my children, so many people called the switchboard at NBC in New York that the circuits blew out," he said. "And thousands of letters came in and folks were saying, 'I didn't know black children and white children were the same.' "
After the Tonight Show appearance, Gregory noted that his salary jumped from $250 for seven nights of work (three shows a night) at the Playboy Club to $5,000 a night. "And the next year and a half, I made $3.9 million," he said. "That is the power."
Gregory used his newfound fame to become a civil-rights activist and opponent of the Vietnam War. He made friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; honored a request from Medgar Evers to speak at a voter-registration rally in Jackson, Miss.; delivered food to NAACP offices in the South; marched in Selma, Ala.; got shot while trying to keep the peace during the 1965 Watts riots; was arrested in Washington for protesting Vietnam; performed benefit shows for the Congress of Racial Equality; and traveled to Tehran, Iran, in 1980 to attempt to negotiate the hostages' release.
Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967 but lost to Richard Daley, then entered the race for U.S. president a year later. A write-in candidate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, he received some 47,000 votes.
"Had I won, first thing I would do is dig up that Rose Garden and plant me a watermelon patch," Gregory said in 2016. "And it would be no more state dinners, but watermelon lunches. We'd eat watermelon and spit the seeds on Pennsylvania Avenue."
Richard Claxton Gregory was born Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis. Raised by his single mother, Lucille, he did odd jobs to help support his family and used humor as a defense against the neighborhood bullies.
He attended Sumner High School, then won a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University, where he ran the half-mile and received the school's outstanding athlete award. While a student, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1954 and did comedy routines in military shows. Two years later, he returned to school after his discharge but departed without a degree.
Gregory began his professional career as a comedian in Chicago in 1958, serving as a nightclub emcee at the black-owned Herman Roberts Show Bar while he maintained a day job at the U.S. Postal Service.
After his life-altering shows at the Playboy Club, Gregory wrote a profound 1964 autobiography titled Nigger, which described his impoverished childhood and the racism he experienced. He wrote a note in the foreword: "Dear Momma, wherever you are, if ever you hear the word 'nigger' again, remember they are advertising my book."
He then played an alto saxophonist named Richie "Eagle" Stokes in Sweet Love, Bitter (1967), a story loosely based on the life of Charlie "Bird" Parker.
In 1973, Gregory stopped performing in clubs because smoking and drinking were allowed (his activism surely cost him work), and it would be more than two decades before he returned to the stage. Until recently, he was doing more than 200 shows and lectures a year.
The comedian also published a 1973 book, Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature; founded Health Enterprises, which marketed weight-loss products; and introduced the Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet Drink Mix. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 but beat it.
In 2016, Emmy-winning actor Joe Morton (Scandal) portrayed Gregory in the off-Broadway play Turn Me Loose, produced by John Legend.
Survivors include his wife, Lillian, a secretary whom he had met at a club in Chicago. They were married in 1959 and had 11 children (one died at birth).
This article originally appeared in THR.com
October 12, 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA
August 19, 2017 in Washington, District of Columbia, USA (heart failure)
Richard Claxton Gregory
5' 7¾" (1.72 m)
Mini Bio (1)
Dick Gregory was born on October 12, 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA as Richard Claxton Gregory. He was an actor and writer, known for Joe Louis: America's Hero... Betrayed(2008), Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal (2012) and What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015). He was married to Lillian Gregory. He died on August 19, 2017 in Washington, District of Columbia, USA.
(2 February 1959 - 19 August 2017) (his death) (11 children)
Interviewed in "The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy" by Larry Wilde (1968).
Biography in: "Who's Who in Comedy" by Ronald L. Smith, pg. 194-195. New York: Facts on File, 1992. ISBN 0816023387
Attended and graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri.
Attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.
He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
He was awarded a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri on May 21, 1995.
He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Live Theatre at 1650 Vine Street on February 2, 2015.
Richard Claxton Gregory passed away on August 19, 2017, two months away from what would have been his 85th birthday on October 12.
Personal Quotes (6)
People keep telling me about the white race and the black race - and it really doesn't make sense. I played Miami, met a fellow two shades darker than me - and his name was Ginsberg! Took my place in two sit-in demonstrations - nobody knew the difference. The he tried for a third lunch counter and blew the whole bit... asked for blintzes.
The NAACP is a wonderful organization. Belong to it myself. But do you realize if tomorrow morning we had complete integration, all them cats would be out of work?
To a heckler: Why do you heckle me? You want excitement? Go down to the NAACP and ask for the white washroom.
For a black man, there's no difference between the North and the South. In the South, they don't mind how close I get, as long as I don't get too big. In the North, they don't mind how big I get, as long as I don't get too close.
A Klaner (KKK) is a cat who gets out of bed in the middle of the night and takes his sheet with him.
[on Lenny Bruce] This guy is the eighth wonder of the world. You have to go back to Mark Twain to find anything remotely like him. And if they don't kill him or throw him in jail, he's liable to shake up the whole country.