Much has been said about the doors that were opened to todays black comedians by early innovators such as Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. What's interesting (and perplexing) is how little is remembered about the man who first opened the door for the likes of Cosby and Pryor.
When Dick Gregory's name is mentioned today, more often than not, it's in connection with fasting or the nutritional and dietary supplements he markets, or the publicity he garners for the plight of obese people. That's sort of like remembering Orson Welles only for his Paul Mason wine commercials.
By now, everyone is familiar with the grainy black and white newsreel footage from the 50's and 60's showing segregated drinking fountains, segregated restaurants, schools, restroom facilities, and the like. What many younger people don't realize is that as recently as the early 1960's, entertainment itself was pretty much a segregated proposition.
Both jazz and rock & roll contributed greatly to bringing black and white music lovers together, but standup comedy maintained a fairly intractable racial line. White performers played to white audiences in white nightclubs -- black performers played to black audiences in black clubs. Dick Gregory would change all that.
In January, 1961, Dick Gregory was booked to play the prestigious Playboy Club in Chicago. After taking the wrong bus to the gig, Dick had to run 20 blocks in freezing weather to get to the club. When he arrived, he was told a mistake had been made and that he could go home. The club was filled with rich white southerners, in town for a frozen food convention -- not exactly Dick's crowd. After all it took to get to the club, Dick insisted on playing to the visiting southerners. He boldly took the stage and began his act:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.
Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ''We dont serve colored people here.'' I said, ''Thats all right. I dont eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken''
Then these three white boys came up to me and said, ''Boy, we're givin' you fair warnin'. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.'' So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, ''Line up, Boys!''
Dick was a huge hit with the audience that night. Hugh Hefner booked him for a three year run at the club. Dick's reputation spread and led to a booking on Jack Paar's Tonight Show. Dick would later write, ''Being on the Jack Paar Show made me in America.'' Numerous television bookings and a lucrative record contract would follow. Dick Gregory became a household name.
Dick would continue to do comedy material based on civil rights issues which were an explosive topic at the time. He maintained that once you made a bigot laugh at his own actions and way of thinking, he could never return to that mindset again without seeing -- if just a little bit -- how laughable it is. Before long, he became actively involved in the civil rights movement, forging close relationships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
He would also come to understand the power of celebrity in bringing needed attention to just causes. His very presence at a march or a rally was sure to warrant newspaper and television coverage. At the apex of his popularity, Dick would make the marches, speak to reporters, get busted, make bail, then go on a theater or nightclub stage and do a comic routine recounting the experience. Sometimes, club dates would be canceled while Dick sat in a jail cell, awaiting arraignment.
Eventually, his priorities would shift and his comedy would take a backseat to his political activism. Blending the two, he became a popular fixture on the college lecture circuit. Although a consistent proponent of ''non-violent revolution'' Dick's college lectures were fiery and confrontive, but laced with the humor that had brought him to national prominence.
Although rail thin in his youth, in the mid-sixties,
Dick had a propensity to being overweight. When he embarked
on a hunger fast to protest the war in Viet Nam, he
became a self-taught expert on nutrition, learning that
there was a ''healthy'' way to conduct a liquid fast.
This led to his successful business as a manufacturer
of dietary and nutritional products and his work with
I began production on Dick Gregory: The Color of Funny in 1986. It was to be the third part of my documentary trilogy which also profiled Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Once the early R&D money ran out, I was on my own. The Mort Sahl film was picked up by PBS' ''American Masters'' series in 1989. Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell The Truth was completed in 1998 and received an Oscar nomination before airing on HBO, which led to an Emmy award. The Dick Gregory film has languished on the shelf all these years, but production will be reactivated in the Fall of 2002 when I complete the third season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Prior to the production hiatus, I went to Dick's home in Plymouth, MA where I filmed eight hours of interviews with him, walking him through his life, from his childhood in the ghettoes of St. Louis to the present day. I also interviewed his wife Lillian who has been his constant companion since the late 1950s. I've collected several hours of vintage performance footage as well as newsreel footage of Dick speaking and marching on behalf of the movement. (I can't count how many news stories I have showing cops tossing Dick into the back of a paddy wagon.)
At one point in the film, I sat down several of Dick's kids (he has ten of them!) and put a video on the TV showing their dad marching in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1964, then being busted, cuffed and hauled off. After watching this footage, the kids all weigh in with their reaction to seeing their father on the front lines of a pivotal battle in their country's history. Its a poignant interlude in the film.
Good things come to those who wait, and this groundbreaking performer will finally get his due with the completion of Dick Gregory: The Color of Funny.