SANFORD AND SON — 10 Unforgettable Characters

SANFORD AND SON on getTV

“Man, you can’t put Redd Foxx on national TV!”

That warning — from Sanford And Son theme song composer Quincy Jones to producer Bud Yorkin made perfect sense. If audiences were familiar with Foxx at all in 1971, it was from his notorious “party records” and risqué nightclub act. By any measure, he was a controversial choice to headline a primetime sitcom.

But it worked — although not at the network where Yorkin and Norman Lear were making history with All In The Family. CBS hedged, Lear called NBC, and Sanford And Son became an immediate sensation. The comedy about a widowed East L.A. junk dealer and his son and partner Lamont (Demond Wilson) was a ratings hit for six seasons and scored seven Emmy nominations.

Since ending its run in 1977, Sanford And Son has often been dismissed as an All In The Family clone, with Foxx’s Fred G. Sanford as the African-American Archie Bunker. While there are similarities — both are based on British sitcoms about aging, opinionated men — Sanford And Son thrived, in part, because it wasn’t just about Sanford and his son. Lear and his writers crafted a rich tapestry of supporting characters — many of them portrayed by Foxx’s friends from the stand-up circuit — that added texture and depth to the world of Fred and Lamont.

Whether you enjoyed the series in its first run and are considering a re-watch, or are just discovering it today, here are ten episodes that will introduce you to The SanfordVerse. And best of all, you can catch Sanford And Son every weeknight on getTV!

1. Fred and Lamont — Crossed Swords (Season 1, Episode 1)

Many sitcoms need time to find their voice, but Sanford And Son had it from the get-go. The first episode has all the familiar elements: Fred calls Lamont a “big dummy,” Fred fakes a heart attack, and there’s a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s worth noting that the pilot was an adaptation of a first season episode of Steptoe And Son, the British sitcom upon which Sanford And Son was based. Even so, it’s a remarkably strong debut that demonstrates Foxx’s flawless timing. His character may have been based on someone else’s, but Redd Foxx made it his own.

2. Aunt Esther — The Big Party (Season 2, Episode 15)  

In season one, Lamont hates his job and is often downright mean to Fred. Their relationship begins to evolve in season two, as the writers emphasize Fred’s crankiness and make Lamont more optimistic and progressive-minded. But Foxx needed an antagonist, and he found her in Aunt Esther Anderson (LaWanda Page), the sister of Fred’s deceased wife Elizabeth. In her first appearance, Esther and her Bible study group crash Fred and Lamont’s rent party and drive out the “heathen.” Aunt Esther’s debut quickly establishes the long-standing hostility between the two, which would come to include popular disses like “sucker” and “fish-eyed fool.” Page began her career as a dancer in her teens and transitioned to stand-up in her 40s, releasing comedy albums that rivaled Foxx’s for bawdiness.  

3. Melvin and Bubba — Coffins For Sale (Season 1, Episode 9) and By The Numbers (Season 2, Episode 1)

Foxx came to Sanford And Son with decades of club experience, including ownership (beginning in 1967) of a Los Angeles nightclub. And many friends he had performed with for years ended up on Sanford And Son. The first was Slappy White, Foxx’s comedy partner in the years following World War II. White played Fred’s buddy Melvin White — Slappy’s actual birth name was Melvin — in the first season. Next came Don Bexley as Bubba Bexley, Foxx’s jovial straight man beginning in season two. Bexley had been a comic for 30 years, and he and Foxx had worked together in Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970), but Sanford And Son was his first TV gig.

4. Grady Wilson —  Libra Rising All Over Lamont (Season 3, Episode 2)

Astrologer Miss Audrey (Vivian Bonnell) tells Lamont he needs peace in his life, so he tries extra hard to be nice when Fred takes ill. Aunt Esther and her prayer group hold a vigil at his bedside, but it turns out Fred just ate some bad collard greens! In this episode we meet Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo), Fred’s absent-minded friend and Lamont’s godfather. Grady became one of the show’s most popular supporting characters, briefly taking over as the lead when Foxx had a contract dispute and headlining his own short-lived spinoff. In addition to spouting nonsense catchphrases, Grady’s trademark is forgetting Lamont’s name. Ironically, the character is named after Demond Wilson, whose full name is Grady Demond Wilson.

5. Rollo Lawson — Have Gun Will Sell (Season 2, Episode 7)  

As Fred and Lamont’s relationship became less combative, the Sanford And Son writers needed characters on the receiving end of Foxx’s insults. The first of these — two months before Aunt Esther — was Rollo Lawson (Nathaniel Taylor), a friend of Lamont’s who happens to be an ex-con. Fred is relentless in his attacks on Rollo, believing him to be a bad influence. In this episode, Lamont and Rollo interrupt a robbery at the junk shop, but the thief leaves his gun behind.  When Fred tries to pawn it, the owner thinks he’s being held up.  

6. The Cops — The Copper Caper (Season 1, Episode 4)

Fred and Lamont’s shenanigans often run afoul of the law (see above), so it’s a good thing that they’re friends with the police. In this episode we meet Officers Smith (Hal Williams) and Swanhauser (Noam Pitlik) of the L.A.P.D. “Smitty” is young, African-American, and a friend of Lamont’s. “Swanny” is white, older, and no-nonsense. Beginning with The Shootout (Season 2, Episode 9) Swanny is replaced by Officer “Hoppy” Hopkins (Howard Platt). We even get to meet Hoppy’s uptight mother May, played by Nancy Kulp (in The Sanford Arms — Season 5, Episode four).

7. Fred’s girlfriend Donna — The Barracuda (Season 1, Episode 10)  

Despite his curmudgeonliness, Fred Sanford actually had a girlfriend. Donna Harris (Lynn Hamilton) is a widowed nurse who starts — and stops — dating Fred in this early episode. Mean Lamont dubs her “The Barracuda” and selfishly sabotages the relationship. But the split is temporary, and Fred gives her a ring three episodes later. Donna and Fred have a sweet relationship that helps soften Foxx’s abrasiveness. Hamilton had appeared earlier in the series as the landlady who rents Lamont an apartment.

8. Lamont’s girlfriend Janet Lamont In Love (Season 5, Episode 18)

After a steady stream of occasional girlfriends, Lamont finally got a significant other in the series’ penultimate season. Janet Lawson (Marlene Clark), a divorced waitress with a 12-year-old son, is introduced in this episode and she and Lamont become engaged two shows later. Fred is suspicious, so he and Esther investigate (with Fred in disguise, dressed up like Columbo). The most fun moment in this episode: when Marlene Clark walks through the door of the Sanford home, you can hear a male audience member exclaim “Wow!”  

9. Julio Fuentes — The Puerto Ricans Are Coming! (Season 2, Episode 8)

While Fred is very different than Archie Bunker, he shares that character’s casual bigotry and close-mindedness. Case in point: Julio Fuentes (Gregory Sierra), a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who moves in next door in season two. Julio becomes friends with Lamont and graciously endures Fred’s ethnic cracks, even when Fred calls the cops on him. Eventually, Fred comes to accept his new neighbors and even tutors Julio’s nephew in English.  

10. Ah Chew — There’ll Be Some Changes Made (Season 4, Episode 5)

A decade before he became an icon as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, Pat Morita played Ah Chew, a Japanese chef who meets Lamont in an encounter group. Fred starts with the predictable ethnic insults, but eventually he and Ah Chew become friends and go into business together. “He was a mentor,” Morita said of Foxx, who had booked the comedian often at his nightclub. “He was probably the most naturally funny human being I’ve ever known.”

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