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‘The One and Only Dick Gregory’ doc is salve for the times

In writer-director Andre Gaines’ directorial debut “The One and Only Dick Gregory,” extraordinary archival footage and new interviews put a spotlight on this icon’s journey from influential comedian to on-the-ground activist — which is discussed by modern legends, including Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, and Wanda Sykes, along with commentary from Harry Belafonte, W. Kamau Bell, Lawrence O’Donnell, Gregory’s wife Lillian Gregory, Medgar Evers’ wife Dr. Myrlie Evers-Williams, and others.

Most essential is Dick Gregory himself, whose insights before he died at the age of 84 in 2017 provide a crucial through line to what Gregory gave voice to during the Civil Rights era — and which continue to be vital today.

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He met his wife, Lillian, at the University of Chicago, where she was working in the library and he was running track. They married in 1959. “She is my backbone,” Gregory said. He told his first joke in 1959 in a club in Chicago called Club Alabam. He also performed at the Esquire Club, whose total experiences taught him “how to play a joke,” he said.

Gregory started telling jokes around being poor with no dad because this was his life. He says he ran track and just ran in general because “I disliked my childhood and started running in nature.”

He soon started incorporating into his jokes political discourse, as he became more aware of civil rights injustices. “He would pop the color thing on you in the midst of a joke,” Harry Belafonte said about Richard Claxton Gregory—more popularly known as comic and activist Dick Gregory. As much as he despised “bad” politicians and policies, he ran for a few offices during his lifetime.

He appeared at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961, after he was called on short notice to replace a white comedian. He was the first Black comic appearing there, and he told jokes to a group of white Southerners. He was heckled a bit but soldiered on. “I was on from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., and my life was never the same,” Gregory said.

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DICK GREGORY with his trademark cigarette. A habit that comedian Dave Chappelle, who appears in the documentary, also shares. Photo credit: Bettmann.

A few months later, he was approached by folks with the Tonight Show with Jack Paar. Gregory recounts the initial phone call where he hung up. After Paar personally called, Gregory answered: “Dick Gregory, this is Mr. Paar. How come you don’t wanna work my show? I said, ‘cause the Negroes never sit down.’ ‘Well, come on in, I’ll let you sit down.’ And that’s how it happened. I came in, did my act, went to sit on the couch. It was sitting on the couch that made my salary grow in three weeks from $250 working seven days a week to $5,000 a night.”

As he explained the type of jokes that he told, Gregory admitted that he wanted a balance to what was shown on television at the time—Amos and Andy. “I wanted more Ralph Bunche and Marian Anderson.”

In 1973, he left Chicago and moved into what became known as the Tower Hill Farms in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He and his wife would have 11 children, but one, a son, passed away while an infant. When he was touring and rarely at home, Lillian would tell their children that “he was a father to the world,” when they begin to miss him.

His original 18-day fast to protest the Vietnam War in 1968 turned into a two-year fast. He once went from nearly 300 pounds to around 98 pounds. Dr. Alvenia Fulton in Chicago taught him about nutrition and helped him launch his still popular Bahamian Diet nutritional drink mix in 1984.

At one point, he felt that poor people were eating dog food, and subsequently, he ran from Chicago to D.C. and then from New York to Los Angeles to highlight the health disparities within the nation.

Chris Rock said that Gregory was “another level of smooth,” as evidenced by one of his trademark jokes: “I waited at the counter of a white restaurant for 11 years. When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.” But as much as Gregory tried, you can’t laugh social problems out of existence—problems that America is still wrestling with today.

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INTERNATIONALLY KNOWN ACTIVIST Dick Gregory (right) is pictured with Chicago and Gary Crusader Publisher Dorothy R. Leavell (center) and Harry Alford, President and CEO of the NBCC (right). The three are attending the National Black Chamber of Commerce’s (NBCC) “Changing of the Chairs” installation luncheon in March 2013 for the new NBCC Chair Dorothy R. Leavell.

A few years before his death, Gregory began experiencing memory loss, and friends and colleagues noted that he became very angry and would serve up profanity-laced diatribes at people, even during radio appearances. “He would curse me out, fire me and hire me back, all in one sentence,” one of his aides noted in the documentary. Kevin Hart told the story about how Gregory once cursed him out, but I view these outbursts as how he coped with his health challenges.

Gregory was close friends with Medgar Evers, Dr. King and Muhammad Ali. During his more than 50-year career, he used his celebrity to protest and was arrested more than 100 times. He was shot in the leg during the 1965 Watts riots and was on J. Edgar Hoover’s watch list. But these incidents didn’t deter him. He was committed to social justice—not just for Blacks but for all.

“The One and Only Dick Gregory” premiered at the recent Tribeca Festival 2021 and will stream on Showtime beginning July 4. Search [] for a look at Gregory discussing the Vietnam War.

Also, stay tuned to this column. In a couple of weeks, I will review “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James,” which also premiered at Tribeca and will be released later this summer. It’s a salacious doozy!

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information, search [] or email: [email protected].

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