SANFORD AND SON – 10 Facts About Fred, Lamont, And The 1970s Classic
The 1970s were a great time to be a sitcom fan. The genies, castaways, and talking horses of 1960s primetime were gone, replaced by sharply written shows that reflected the social upheaval of the day. Much of the credit for TV comedy’s New Wave goes to Norman Lear, the creative force behind groundbreaking classics like All In The Family, Good Times, and Sanford And Son. And you can see what we mean every weeknight on getTV!
Sanford And Son is the most broadly comedic of the trio. Cranky junkman Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his son Lamont (Demond Wilson) operate a “salvage” shop in South Central L.A. More often than not, they’re involved in get-rich-quick schemes with Fred’s buddies Grady (Whitman Mayo) and Bubba (Don Bexley) or Lamont’s friend Rollo (Nathaniel Taylor). But the show’s secret comedy weapon is La Wanda Page as Aunt Esther, Fred’s sister-in-law and chief antagonist.
Like Lear’s All In The Family, Sanford And Son mines intergenerational conflict for laughs. But while Fred Sanford may have been conceived as an African American Archie Bunker, Foxx quickly made the character his own. After three decades as a nightclub comic, his masterful timing and broad physicality turned a simple premise into a smash hit.
So, don’t be a big dummy! Enjoy these facts about one of the most enduring sitcoms of the ‘70s:
1. “Redd Foxx” wasn’t his real name.
Foxx was born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis on December 9, 1922. He spent his early teens on the Chicago’s south side, moved to New York in the 1940s, and began hanging out with the man who would become known as Malcolm X. It was Malcolm who dubbed the young comic “Chicago Red” because of his reddish hair. Others called him “Foxy,” so Sanford combined both for his stage name: “Redd Foxx.” A quarter century later, his Sanford And Son character would be named after his father and brother: Fred G. Sanford.
2. He was a comedy pioneer.
Foxx’s big break came when he and comic Slappy White (a future Sanford And Son guest star) opened for blues singer Dinah Washington in the early ‘50s. Soon after, his raunchy solo act became a fixture in African American clubs and on explicit “party” records. “Foxx released the first authentic recordings taken from the nightclub stage,” Kliph Nesteroff wrote in The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels And The History Of American Comedy. “By the early 1960s, everyone was in the game. Comedy records were a national phenomenon.”
3. Foxx crossed over to mainstream success in 1966.
In 1966, Foxx played the Aladdin Hotel, becoming the first African American comic to headline Las Vegas. He used the proceeds to open the Redd Foxx Club in Los Angeles, where he inspired up-and-coming comics of color like Richard Pryor (Pryor would later write two episodes of Sanford And Son). “He was the epitome,” Nesteroff quotes Pryor as saying. “He was doing it all – being himself on stage, pulling no punches, a totally no-BS act.”
4. Foxx cleaned up for TV.
Foxx’s first exposure to TV audiences came on talk/variety programs like The Tonight Show, Joey Bishop, and Flip Wilson’s show. In these venues, the comic proved he could be “clean” enough for TV, but still be himself. When Norman Lear and his Tandem Productions partner Bud Yorkin decided to capitalize on the success of All In The Family with a similar series about an African American family, they immediately wanted Foxx. When Yorkin asked composer Quincy Jones to compose the theme, Jones asked who would be the star. “Man, you can’t put Redd Foxx on national TV!” Jones said. Lear and Yorkin proved him wrong.
5. Sanford And Son was based on a British sitcom.
As they had done with All In The Family, Lear and Yorkin based Sanford And Son on a British comedy. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson ‘s Steptoe And Son was a BBC situation comedy about “rag and bone” dealers Albert and Harold Steptoe. The elder Steptoe – the template for Fred Sanford – was played by Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell, otherwise best known as Paul McCartney’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night (1964).
6. Foxx received an Emmy nomination after just three months on the air.
Sanford And Son was an immediate hit when it debuted as a midseason replacement in January of 1972. The series concluded its first season in April, ranked sixth in total viewers. Foxx received his first Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy Series, ironically losing to Carroll O’Connor for All In The Family. He would be nominated twice more, losing both times.
7. Foxx missed nine episodes in a contract dispute.
Foxx walked off the series during season three, citing health issues. Scripts were rewritten, and Whitman Mayo’s Grady took over the lead for the final six episodes. Foxx sought a 25% ownership stake in the series, and Tandem Productions fought back with a $10 million lawsuit. The dispute was resolved in June of 1974, with Foxx receiving $25,000 per-episode, plus 25% of the producers’ net profits. Although Foxx was still absent for production of the first three shows of season four, NBC aired his return as the season premiere.
8. Foxx and Wilson quit the show.
After season six ended in March of 1977, Foxx accepted an offer from ABC to host a variety show and quit Sanford And Son. Despite the new show’s pedigree – it was created by Sonny And Cher and Smothers Brothers veterans Allan Blye and Bob Einstein – The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour was cancelled after just a month. When NBC rejected Demond Wilson’s request for a raise to continue without Foxx, he too decided to leave, taking the lead in the CBS sitcom Baby, I’m Back. That show was also short-lived, surviving for only 13 episodes.
9. NBC tried to continue Sanford And Son without Sanford. Or Son.
Faced with the prospect of losing one of their biggest hits, NBC decided to keep going without either of the leads. The retooled Sanford Arms premiered on September 16, 1977 with Theodore Wilson (That’s My Mama, Good Times) running the next-door rooming house the Sanfords had bought earlier in the series. Most of the supporting cast remained, but the audience didn’t buy it. Ratings plummeted and the show was cancelled after four episodes.
10. Redd Fox returned as Fred Sanford.
Less than three years later, Foxx returned to NBC for the sequel series Sanford. Demond Wilson chose not to participate, and comic actor Dennis Burkley was cast as Fred’s new partner Cal Pettie. The series did not match the success of the original and was cancelled after two short seasons.
11. BONUS Redd Foxx met a sad end.
The signature gag on Sanford And Son involved Fred faking a heart attack, clutching his chest, and proclaiming “I’m coming, Elizabeth” to his deceased wife. On October 11, 1991, while working on his comeback series The Royal Family, Foxx suffered a heart attack. Cast members initially thought he was kidding, but Redd Foxx died later that night at the hospital. Ironically, the working title for the series had been Chest Pains. It was a sad end for a brilliant performer whose life and art where inextricably linked.
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