Comedian and author Dick Gregory has been active since the ’60’s and is showing no signs of slowing down. Gregory turns 84 today and the activist remains fiery and opinionated as ever.
Richard Claxton Gregory was born in 1932 in St. Louis. A star track and field athlete, Gregory ran for two years as a student at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1954. It was during his time in the service that Gregory discovered a love for comedy and entertained troops during in-house talent shows.
Gregory was formally discharged and returned to college but didn’t finish as he thought the school just used him for his athletic ability. After moving to Chicago, Gregory began laying the groundwork for his comedy career, opening a nightclub in 1958. When it failed he became the host for the Black-owned Roberts Show Bar in Chicago.
Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner saw Gregory perform his act at the Roberts venue and invited him to play at the Playboy Club. Gregory performed in front of a mostly white audience of Southern executives. Despite his audience, Gregory didn’t tone down the political nature of his act.
His career took off from that point and so did the nature of his political stances. He was a frequent guest on variety and talk shows, but he famously refused an invitation to Jack Parr’s Tonight Show after learning Black comics didn’t get interviewed after performances like their white counterparts. Parr personally called Gregory to inquire why the comedian wouldn’t appear on the program, and the pair hammered out their issues. Gregory became the first Black comic interviewed on the talk show.
Gregory became an activist and a frontline figure in the civil rights movement. In 1964, he published the first of several books, N—er: An Autobiography by Dick Gregory which has sold over 1 million copies. Gregory has also written about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the roots of African-American comedy.
In the ’80’s, Gregory launched his Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet business and was an early success in the heath industry. In 2014, Gregory relaunched the diet as “Dick Gregory’s Caribbean Diet For Optimal Health.”
Gregory has been married to his wife Lillian Smith since 1959. The pair have 10 children together.