Sad news to report tonight. One of the true pioneers of stand-up comedy has passed away. Dick Gregory succumbed to heart failure on Saturday. He was 84 years old at the time of his death. Best known as a stand-up comedian who came of age in the 1960s, Gregory is also known for parlaying his success into a life of social and political activism, become an important voice for all races, creeds and colors. He was able to break certain barriers that other Civil Rights activists couldn’t through the use of humor and understanding the human condition. Son Christian Gregory made a statement shortly after his father’s passing to comment on the man and the important body of work he leaves behind.
“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. The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”
Steve Jaffe, who was Dick Gregory’s publicist for the past 50 years, had this to say to The Hollywood Reporter about his client and friend’s passing.
“He was one of the sweetest, smartest, most loving people one could ever know. I just hope that God is ready for some outrageously funny times.”
It is noted in the initial report on the comedian’s passing that he had been hospitalized recently, but no date is given. Dick Gregory was one of the first African-American comedians to perform in front of white crowds. And he became well known on the TV talk show circuit of the 60s and 70s. Hailing from St. Louis, Gregory had a unique way of satirizing racism and other social ills of the time through his popular routines.
Gregory was known for staying current in telling his jokes to various audiences, ripping his punchlines directly from the top headlines of the day. He was known for an intelligent brand of humor that did not mine laughs through the use of profanity, and while politically minded, he was not an adult only entertainer.
Gregory broke into the big time back in 1961, when he managed to book a gig at the Playboy Club in downtown Chicago, serving as a one-night only replacement for white comic Professor Irwin Corey, who had decided that he couldn’t do his stand-up gig at the club 7 nights a week. Said Gregory in an interview published just last year.
“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.”
Hugh Hefner paid Dick Gregory $50 for that performance, having discovered the comedian performing in front of a black audience. At the time, that was considered a huge pay day. That first white crowd, who were notably mostly executives from a frozen-food company, thought Gregory was an amazing talent, and Hefner noticed how popular he was right away. That one night only gig turned into a three week stay, which in turn became three years. During that time he was profiled in Time magazine.
In 1962, Dick Gregory was invited to perform on The Tonight Show. Gregory almost declined the offer, saying he’d only show up if he were allowed to sit next to host at that time, Jack Paar after his routine. And he wanted to be interviewed. No other black comedian had done such a thing at that time. Says Gregory about the landscape-changing appearance.
“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. And thousands of letters came in and folks were saying, ‘I didn’t know black children and white children were the same.’ “
Before The Tonight Show performance, Gregory was pulling in $250 for a seven night work week, three shows a night, still performing at the Playboy Club. After the trailblazing event, he began pulling down $5,000 a night. Over the course of the next year and a half, he managed to make $3.9 million.
Newly famous, Dick Gregory became a civil rights activity and opponent of the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X both considered him a good friend, and King would often seek out the comedian for advice when it came to public speaking. Medgar Evers asked Gregory to speak at a voter registration rally in Jackson, Miss., which he obliged. He also helped deliver food to NAACP offices in the South and marched in Selma, Alabama.
During the 1965 Watts riots, Gregory ended up getting shot while trying to keep the peace. He was later arrested for protesting the Vietnam War in Washington. And he was known for performing benefit shows for the Congress of Racial Equality. Living quite the storied life, Gregory even traveled to Tehran in 1980, where he attempted to negotiate for the hostages’ release.
On the side of politics, Dick Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967, losing to Richard Daley. And he actively campaigned to be the U.S. President as a write-in candidate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed, with the man pulling in an astounding 47,000 votes at the time.
Following his stint at the Playboy Club, Dick Gregory wrote his autobiography in 1964, simply called Nigger. It charted his impoverished childhood and explored the racism he had suffered through his youth and into adulthood. In the forward, he left this note to his beloved mother.
“Dear Momma, wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
In 1967, Gregory played alto saxophonist Richie “Eagle” Stokes in Sweet Love, Bitter, which was loosely based on the life of musician Charlie “Bird” Parker. He would drop out of the club scene in 1973, when smoking and drinking began to over take the venues he frequented. It is noted that his social activism cost him quite a lot of work. It wasn’t until the 90s that he returned to the stage. Until just recently, Gregory had been on the road, doing upwards of 200 shows a year, including various lectures around the country.
The comedian published his second book in 1973, titled Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature. He became quite health conscious and founded Health Enterprises, which distributed Slim/Safe Bahamian Diet Mix. Prior to his recent bought of illness, he had been diagnosed with cancer in 2001. He managed to beat the disease. A year later he would appear in the Rob Schneider movie The Hot Chick, playing a Bathroom Attendant. He also appeared as a Blind Panhandler on several episodes of Reno 911!. His final TV appearance came in 2005, on an episode of MTV2’s controversial kids’ show spoof Wonder Showzen, where he played Mr. Sun. He later had a small role in the 2009 comedy musical Steppin: The Movie. His last performance was in a short film called Ir/Reconcilable, in which he played the grandfather. It was released to limited audiences in 2014.
Joe Morton of Scandal fame played Dick Gregory in the 2016 off-Broadway play Turn Me Loose, which was produced by musician John Legend. He is survived by his wife Lillian. The pair married in 1959, and they had 11 children together, one of whom died at birth.