Dick Gregory was born in 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri. Having run track and field in school, Gregory eventually turned to stand-up comedy, having his big break performing at the Playboy Club in the early 1960s. Known for his sophisticated, layered humor that took on racial issues of the day, Gregory became a national comedy headliner and a trailblazer for upcoming African-American humorists. He eventually turned his focus away from the stage to focus on various forms of activism that included the Civil Rights Movement and to run for political office. Over the ensuing decades he has worked as a lecturer and also become a health/fitness guru.
Background and Early Years
Richard Claxton Gregory was born on October 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri. He grew up in crippling poverty, with his mother working long hours and father having left the large family behind. With the intellectually-minded Gregory taking on work as a youth to also support the household, he was eventually able to join his high school track team and was later accepted to Southern Illinois University. As a teenager, he began his lifelong call for racial justice and activism when he first protested against segregated schools. He was drafted into the army in the mid-1950s and it was during this time that he began performing stand-up comedy and later became part of its entertainment division after winning a talent event.
After his return to the states, Gregory worked as an MC at various Chicago clubs, honing his craft as a comedian and taking on odd jobs while working the circuit. He brandished a trailblazing style of humor that was calm, satirical and full of sociopolitical, racially-tinged wit with topics pulled straight from contemporary headlines—a stark contrast to the song-and-dance routines previous African-American performers had been relegated to.
Gregory’s big break came in 1961 at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago, where the comedian, as a replacement act, performed in front of a room of white executives visiting from the segregated South. Nonetheless, Gregory was a huge success. “It was the first time they had seen a black comic who was not bucking his eyes, wasn’t dancing and singing and telling mother-in-law jokes,” said Gregory in a 2000 Boston Globe interview. ”Just talking about what I read in the newspaper.”
The comedian had his run at the club extended by weeks and gradually became a national comedy headliner. That same year, Gregory made history by appearing on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show after making it clear he wanted to be invited to sit on the couch to have a chat with the host like white entertainers, thus becoming the first guest to do so on the program. Gregory became a recurring guest on the show over the ensuing months.
Gregory was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement during the ‘60s, becoming friends with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Over the coming decades he took on a range of issues that ranged from ending the Vietnam War to feminism, Native-American rights and apartheid in South Africa, with Gregory being arrested dozens of times for his causes. In the mid-‘60s, Gregory unsuccessfully ran against Richard Daley to be mayor of Chicago. In 1968, he also ran for U.S. president as a write-in candidate with the Freedom and Peace Party during the electoral showdown between Richard Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey.
Over the years, Gregory became devoted to health and fitness, adopting a vegetarian diet and completing long runs in a continuation of his favored sport from his teen days. He became a noted university lecturer and looked at issues around diet within African-American communities. Gregory also regularly fasted in protest of particular world events.
During the mid-’80s, the comedian/activist launched a weight-loss business known as the Slim/Safe Bahamian Diet. He eventually filed a lawsuit against his business partners with major money troubles leading to the loss of Gregory’s 40-acre farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He also turned away from stand-up for a time, citing the unhealthy environment of the clubs, but later made his way back to performing. In 1996 he starred in the critically well-received Off-Broadway production Dick Gregory Live!
Gregory has been married for more than five and a half decades to Lillian Smith, with the couple tying the knot in 1959. The two have 10 children, with one son having died in infancy. Gregory has acknowledged that his wife was the primary emotional caretaker of their children due to the demands of his work projects and traveling.
Gregory revealed in 2000 he was diagnosed with lymphoma, reportedly stating that he relied on factors like diet and alternative treatments to help put the cancer in remission.
The comedian/activist has also authored a number of books, including the controversially titled 1964 release Nigger: An Autobiography (in the foreword, he showcased his humor yet again as he wrote to his deceased mother: “Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book…”), 1971’s No More Lies: The Myth and the Reality of American History, 1973’s Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Nature and the 2000 memoir Callus on My Soul.
Dick Gregory passed away on Saturday, August 19th, 2017.
*Originally published on Biography.