UPDATE [8/20/2017, 3:48 p.m. ET]:
Dick Gregory’s cause of death was heart failure, as confirmed to the Hollywood Reporter by his representative. This is in line with a report from TMZ cited in the original report, where Gregory’s rep made a similar statement.
Original report below:
The world lost a pioneering African-American stand-up comedian, civil rights activist, and satirist on Saturday when Dick Gregory died at the age of 84 in Washington, D.C. His cause of death has yet to be confirmed, but his passing comes shortly after he was hospitalized for an undisclosed medical condition.
Gregory’s death was confirmed on Saturday night, when his son, Christian Gregory, made the sad announcement on his father’s Facebook page, adding that more details will be made available to the public in the following days. A previous Instagram post from Christian noted that his father was hospitalized on Wednesday, August 9 and released soon after, but after showing only “minimal improvement,” he was returned to the hospital just three days later.
In his social media posts, Christian refrained from mentioning Dick Gregory’s cause of death, or the reason why he was hospitalized twice shortly before his passing. But he mentioned that “simple” medical conditions could easily become more serious for a person his father’s age.
“When it comes to sickness and disease one’s age is highly significant. There is no such thing as a ‘simple’ condition. In advanced age a simple cold or a simple infection could be catastrophic. At soon to be chronologically 85, my father’s true age far exceeds that.”
A report from TMZ cited Dick Gregory’s representative, who said that his cause of death was heart failure. This, however, has yet to be confirmed by the late comedian and activist’s family.
Dick Gregory was born Richard Claxton Gregory in St. Louis on October 12, 1932, the second of six children. According to the New York Times, Dick and his siblings were raised mainly by their mother, Lucille, who struggled to make a living as a maid in the Great Depression. Growing up mainly in poverty, Gregory would become a track star in Sumner High School in St. Louis and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. After leaving college to join the Army in 1954, he then began making his name as a comedian, while also working odd jobs to make ends meet after his discharge.
Gregory’s big break took place in 1961, when he was hired to work at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago, initially as a replacement for comedian Irwin Corey. Despite performing in front of several white businessmen from the Deep South, Gregory’s debut performance at the Playboy Club was a success, as Hefner extended the young comic’s contract.
As a pioneering African-American standup comedian, Gregory believed that his main priority was to make people laugh, and not to change how white Americans thought of blacks. But the New York Times noted that his performances and record releases had left white audiences with a “deeper feel for the nation’s shameful racial history.” This set him apart from Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, and other black comedians, as he became known as a rare example of a “crossover star” who appealed to African-American and Caucasian audiences alike.
As quoted by the Guardian, Gregory often referenced his impoverished childhood and experiences with racial segregation in his act, and how this inclusion of social commentary helped make him a household name.
“Where else in the world but America could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week just for talking about it?”
Dick Gregory also made his name as a social activist, taking part in several civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, and racking up several arrests for his participation. As the decade progressed, Gregory became less involved in nightclub gigs, instead appearing at college lectures as an in-demand speaker. Additionally, he was known for going on hunger strikes over the Vietnam War, police brutality, South African apartheid, and other causes, sometimes dropping to a skinny 95 pounds due to his weeks-long fasting.
While Dick Gregory’s acts of fasting as an activist might not be related to his cause of death, he did seek to live a healthy lifestyle, advocating for health food and co-developing a weight loss powder in the 1980s. He was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999, with the cancer going into remission thanks to a healthy regimen of “vitamins, herbs, and exercise,” the New York Times wrote.
Gregory is survived by his wife of 58 years, Lillian, and their 10 children. He was preceded in death by a son, Richard Jr., who died in infancy.
[Featured Image by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images]