Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory
(12 October 1932, St. Louis, Missouri – 19 August 2017, Washington, D.C.)
Dick Gregory Lecturing at Wright State University, April 1973
Photo: Wilbur Norman
Dick Gregory, U.S. Army veteran, urbane comedian-turned-social activist and writer, actor, businessman and provocateur par excellence, died yesterday at the age of 84. I first met him in April 1973 when he spoke at Wright State University. I would then run into him at various events around the East Coast. I think the last time I saw him must have been in 1987 when he was arrested protesting apartheid in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC.
He could keep up a biting and satirical running commentary better than anyone I have ever met, no doubt from practice as a stand-up comedian in his early career. That career was given a big boost by his appearance on The Jack Paar Tonight Show in 1961.
After turning down invitations to perform on the show he was called by Paar to find out why. (Billy Eckstine had told Gregory no black performer was ever asked to sit on the couch after their act.) Gregory told Paar that the reason he was not willing to perform on The Tonight Show was “because a Negro has never been able to finish the act and walk to the couch.” The show’s producers changed this policy, making Gregory the first African American to take the couch and talk with Paar after a stage appearance!
Although I certainly cannot say I knew him, I ran into Sam Shepard (5 November 1943 – 27 July 2017) more frequently than almost any other famous person I have ever ‘known’. And, some of those times I would only realize it was him after he had moved on.
On a blustery early evening in March or April about eight years ago, I was leaving the Asian Tribal Art Show on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street in NYC, head down to counter the cold, when he breezed by me in a stride as brisk as the wind, cowboy hat pulled low over his forehead and the collar of his shearling coat cinched up high; I only realized it was him after he had passed by. But where I saw him most often was in Santa Fe at the great bookstore Op Cit. He was an avid reader (or an avid book buyer) and he would bend his tall frame over, pick up a paperback and check it out much like any lover of the printed word.
And word lover he was in both consumption and production: 55 plays, 50 films, a dozen plus TV roles and at least 7 books that were not plays. Among his additional talents were banjo picker, song writer, Obie Award collector (I believe he holds the record at 10 wins) and voice actor for the audio book of Spaulding Gray’s last monologue. He avidly avoided aviation travel but was sometimes guilty of driving under the influence.
Mr. Shepard turned the final page last Thursday from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly called Lou Gehrig’s disease in the U.S. and motor neurone disease (MND) in Britain.
He and his writing will be much missed.
“Sam always wrote from that place — a zone of trauma, mystery and grief. Whether the play was more mainstream or experimental in its conception, he took the big risk every time.” – playwright Christopher Shinn, The NY Times, July 31, 2017.