It was more than half a century ago that Dick Gregory became the Jackie Robinson of stand-up comedy, arguably the first black comic to break through to the white American mainstream. Yet he’s only receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Feb. 2. Ask him why it took so long, and you’ll get a quick response.
“You know damn good and well why it took so long,” the 82-year-old chuckles. “I’ve been a bad boy.”
That’s one way of putting it. Another way would be to note that, at the height of his popularity, Gregory all but abandoned standup to become a full-time activist, a second major career change (he was a track-and-field star prior to trying his hand at comedy) that saw him stir up trouble for decades, once mounting a run for president, getting shot during the Watts riots, and staging a hunger strike in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.
“I used to be an athlete, and I didn’t know there was a better feeling that a human being could feel, until I became a name in the entertainment field,” Gregory says. “And I didn’t know there was a feeling any better than that until I got hooked up with the civil-rights movement.”
His often brash provocation for racial equality, women’s rights and environmentalism might have truncated his time as a marquee draw, but playing nice was never part of Gregory’s act. In 1961, Gregory broke unspoken barriers by performing to white audiences at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago, where his deft deflections of racist hecklers earned him widespread respect, and a headlining slot.
“It’s such a sad thing that Hefner will never get his due for what he did,” Gregory says. “When you think about all the black comics, the Richard Pryors, the Paul Mooneys, they’ve always been here. But white folks weren’t exposed to them until this fragile white guy who smoked a pipe and looked like Popeye put us onstage.”
Later, Gregory vaulted into the national consciousness with his appearance on “Tonight Starring Jack Paar,” a gig he initially refused when he learned that black performers were not allowed to sit down and chat with Paar on his famous couch.
“I hung up the phone, and I started crying,” Gregory recalls of turning down the slot. “That’s how close I came to not talking to you. But he called me back and said come in and do the show, and after I sat on the couch, my salary jumped from $1,500 a year to $3.5 million. That was the power of sitting on that couch.”
A civil-rights movement veteran — his 1960s quip, “I know the South very well, I spent 20 years there one night” may be the best punchline of the movement — Gregory is effusive in his praise of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” brushing off criticism of its Lyndon B. Johnson portrayal with a quick perspective check.
“When they made ‘Cleopatra,’ all black folks knew that Cleopatra was a black Egyptian woman. But when they used Liz Taylor, we didn’t complain — because that’s Hollywood.
“(‘Selma’) will still be relevant 10,000 years from now, because it shows history. If you go to India today and ask about Martin Luther King, they’ll tell you who he was, but they don’t know what he actually did. Because of this movie, people will start doing the research, kids who aren’t even born yet.”
Watch Gregory’s Walk of Fame ceremony below.