On Saturday night, his son Christian Gregory wrote in a social media post: ‘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, DC.
‘The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time. More details will be released over the next few days.’
He used his comedy to attack racism and appeared in a string of movies.
Gregory even ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967.
Gregory had been hospitalized with a serious medical condition, according to his son.
Just 10 days ago, Gregory had to cancel a scheduled show in San Jose, Calif., when he woke up feeling ill and was taken for medical evaluation.
Subsequently, he was forced to postpone an Atlanta appearance on August 15.
Gregory began his career as a comedian while serving in the military in the mid 1950s. He served in the army for a year and a half at Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Lee in Virginia, and Fort Smith in Arkansas. He was drafted in 1954 while attending Southern Illinois University Carbondale. After being discharged in 1956 he returned to the university but did not receive a degree. With a desire to perform comedy professionally, he moved to Chicago.
In 1958, Gregory opened a nightclub called the Apex Club in Illinois. The club failed, landing Gregory in financial hardship. In 1959, Gregory landed a job as master of ceremonies at the Roberts Show Club.
Gregory performed as a comedian in small, primarily black-patronized nightclubs, while working for the United States Postal Service during the daytime. He was one of the first black comedians to gain widespread acclaim performing for white audiences. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Gregory describes the history of black comics as limited: “Blacks could sing and dance in the white night clubs but weren’t allowed to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks, which is what a comic does.”
In 1961, while working at the black-owned Roberts Show Bar in Chicago, he was spotted by Hugh Hefner performing the following material before a largely white audience:
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 don’t serve colored people here.” I said, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Then these three white boys came up to me and said, “Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. 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!”
Gregory attributed the launch of his career to Hugh Hefner, who watched him perform at Herman Roberts Show Bar. Based on that performance, Hefner hired Gregory to work at the Chicago Playboy Club as a replacement for comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey.
Gregory’s first television appearance was on the late night show Tonight Starring Jack Paar. He soon began appearing nationally and on television.
Early in Dick Gregory’s career, he was offered an engagement on Tonight Starring Jack Paar. Paar’s show was known for helping propel entertainers to the next level of their careers. At the time, black comics did perform on the show, but were never asked to stay after their performances to sit on the famous couch and talk with the host. Dick Gregory declined the invitation to perform on the show several times until finally Jack Paar called him to find out why he refused to perform on the show. Eventually, in order to have Gregory perform, the producers agreed to allow him to stay after his performance and talk with the host on air. This was a first in the show’s history. Dick Gregory’s interview on Tonight Starring Jack Paar spurred conversations across America.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. www.ap.org