A tribute today to John Elroy Sanford a.k.a Redd Foxx (1922-1991).
Foxx was born in St. Louis and raised in Chicago, where he performed as Chicago Red on account of his reddish hair. By the 1950s he was working nightclubs on the Chitlin’ Circuit, becoming known for his ribald stand-up act. Foxx definitely paved the way for guys who came up just behind him, especially Richard Pryor, who was a fan, and knew him on the circuits. Here’s a clip from a 1960 album:
It was the notoriety of these stand-up performances and turns in movies like Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) which caused Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin to cast him as Fred Sanford in the 1972 sit-com Sanford and Son as a follow-up to his also controversial All in the Family. Foxx’s brassy style, most definitely UN-Uncle Tom-like was seminal in bringing the aesthetics of black vaudeville to a mainstream American audience.
Sanford and Son was based on the British sitcom Steptoe and Son which had launched on the BBC a decade earlier. Foxx played Fred Sanford, a widowed junk dealer in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles with his son Lamont (Demond Wilson), whom Sanford frequently called simply “Dummy”. (Fred Sanford was Foxx’s brother’s actual name).
Like his All in the Family counterpart Archie Bunker, Sanford was abusive and bigoted, and had derogatory nicknames and insults on tap for just about everybody. The long suffering Lamont often runs interference in these conflicts, but in the end they usually need to come to a full boil before Fred comes to his senses. His other major comedy foil was his sister-in-law Esther, a judgmental Christian woman with a face only a mother could love, played by the immortal comedy legend LaWanda Page, whom Foxx had known and performed with since his teenage years. Fred also pitched in to LaMont’s best friend Rollo (Nathaniel Taylor) an ex-con and seemingly somewhat shady character. Fred’s moments of bigotry are often on display in reaction to LaMont’s non-black friends, like the Puerto Rican Julio (Gregory Sierra) and the Japanese neighbor Ah Chew (Pat Morita). And — perhaps for the first time on national television, whites were lampooned. The lightning rod for most of that material was an extremely white cop named “Hoppy” (Howard Platt), who ineptly tries to ingratiate himself by using black slang, or sometimes goes the opposite way, using convoluted police-speak that his black partner Smitty (Hal Williams) has to translate. Best of all, the great Nancy Kulp, the ultimate Caucasian self-caricature, shows up one season, playing Hoppy’s mother. And the great Frank Nelson recurred many times in bit parts, often playing fussy storeclerks and bureaucrats and the like whom Fred has to deal with.
Inexplicably, Sanford has a wide circle of friends, who all seem happy to take his abuse. These include Grady (Whitman Mayo), Bubba (Don Bexley), Melvin (Slappy White), and the team of Leroy and Skillet (Leroy Daniels and Ernest ‘Skillet’ Mayhand). Raymond Allen played Esther’s tippling husband Woody. Almost of all this bunch were old cohorts of Foxx’s from his nightclub days. At a couple of points during the show’s run, for reasons of salary or illness, Foxx took time off from the show, and Whitman Mayo’s Grady took the spotlight. Matthew “Stymie” Beard from the Little Rascals, played Grady’s friend Otis. And Lynn Hamilton played Fred’s girlfriend Donna, a nice nurse lady, who, like Lamont, must frequently smooth over ruffled feathers in Fred’s world.
One of the best things about the show was the harmonica laden theme music by Quincy Jones, which somehow telegraphed black culture and silly comedy at the same time — it’s just that kind of witty composition that causes Jones to be called a genius.
Tellingly, though the show was set in Watts, and I watched it constantly as a kid, both in prime time and in re-runs, there was little or no reference to social unrest, or riots, or Blank Panthers, or that kind of controversial, loaded stuff. It was clearly IMPLIED, and older people would have filled that in, but for the most part, if you were innocent about current events, as children often are, it went over your head. There were little touches here and there, but mostly what you got was a sense of the universal struggle of working people in an urban setting.
In 1977, Foxx abruptly left the series, without even notifying Wilson. A spinoff was attempted, Sanford Arms, about a hotel, featuring the entire cast of the show except Foxx. Wilson was to star, but he balked at the salary, so Teddy Wilson of That’s My Mama took the lead, playing one of Fred’s old army buddies. (Demond Wilson and Teddy Wilson are apparently unrelated.) Sanford Arms only lasted one season.
After Sanford and Son, Foxx tried a variety show, which didn’t take off, then reprised his most famous role in a new show called Sanford in 1980. Sanford featured some of the old cast, but not Demond Wilson, who felt burned from the demise of their previous show and hadn’t spoken to Foxx since. As it happened, Sanford only lasted one season. In 1986 he tried The Redd Foxx Show, which again only lasted one season.
In 1991, Foxx co-starred in a new show with Della Reese, produced by none other than Eddie Murphy. Originally called Chest Pains, it aired as The Royal Family. It was during rehearsals for this show that Foxx suffered one of show business’s most ironic deaths. Fred Sanford’s faked heart attacks had been a running gag on Sanford and Son. If anything was going wrong, and Fred wanted to wriggle out of it, Fred’s modus operandi was to clutch his heart and called out to his dead wife,”I’m coming, Elizabeth! I’m coming to join ya!” As it happens, while working on The Royal Family one day in 1991 he suddenly clutched his chest in pain and collapsed. Naturally his colleagues thought he was fooling. But he died right there of a heart attack. Life imitates art sometimes. In this case, life imitated Sanford and Son.
To find out more about the variety arts, including comedians in the black vaudeville tradition like Redd Foxx, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous