Foxx, Redd (1922-1991)

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Foxx, Redd (1922-1991)

Born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, Missouri in 1922, Redd Foxx became one of America's most beloved comedic figures in the 1970s. Called Redd because of his complexion, he took the last name of baseball star Stan Fox—though by adding his distinctive double "x," nobody would have known this—, and left home at the age of 16 to join a New York street band. Through the 1940s and 1950s, Foxx worked as a stand-up comedian and became known for his "party records," recordings of his bawdy stand-up act. The most famous of these was 1955's "Laff of the Party," but he recorded many more. Over 15 million copies of his records were reportedly sold, although Foxx claimed to have received no royalties.

Redd Foxx is best remembered for his role as junk dealer Fred G. Sanford, the cantankerous but lovable elderly widower of NBC's hit comedy Sanford & Son (1972-1977). The show was the second smash hit (after All in the Family) for Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, whose topical comedies of the 1970s addressed issues of bigotry regarding race, gender, and sexuality to a degree that had never been seen on American television before. Fred Sanford was a black counterpart to All in the Family's Archie Bunker. Sanford & Son was based on the hit British comedy Steptoe & Son, which revolved around a cockney junk dealer. The American version was set in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where Fred and his son Lamont (played by Demond Wilson) are partners in the business. Fred is content to eke out a living as a junkman, though he is constantly hatching all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes, which make Lamont crazy. Lamont, by contrast, is seeking a better life, and many of the sitcom's conflicts arise out of Lamont's desire to get out of the junk business and Fred's attempts to make him stay. Their arguments frequently end with Fred feigning a heart attack, clutching his chest, and calling to his dead wife, "I'm coming to join you Elizabeth!" With this conflict between family and ambition at the center, the Sanfords interact with other engaging characters, many of them played by older black actors who Redd Foxx had worked with in his early stand-up days. The results were hilarious.

Foxx left Sanford and Son at the end of the 1976-77 season amidst reported contract disputes with the producers and an argument with NBC over an appropriate dressing room. He signed with ABC for the Redd Foxx Comedy Hour, in which he spotlighted some of his old show business friends, and communicated his version of events in American history in a regular spot called "The History of the Black in America." The show, however, proved a ratings bomb and lasted only a few months.

After a few years working in Las Vegas clubs and making guest appearances on other people's variety shows, Foxx returned to television in 1980 when NBC tried to revive the earlier hit series as Sanford. The cast of characters was new, the writing poor, and that show, too, suffered the fate of his Comedy Hour, lasting only a few months. In 1986, The Redd Foxx Show attempted to present its star in an entirely new guise as a kindly newsstand operator with a white foster daughter. It was retooled after a couple of episodes when network research showed that Americans liked Foxx better as a grumpy character. The daughter was written out and a nagging ex-wife was written in. The series failed to survive.

In the late 1980s, Foxx was forced to file for bankruptcy. Three divorces and an extravagant lifestyle had forced him into a position where the IRS seized most of his assets, but 1989 brought a change of fortune. He appeared in Eddie Murphy's film Harlem Nights, received good notices and went on to a role in a new Murphy-produced series called The Royal Family. On October 11, 1991, after filming only seven episodes, Redd Foxx collapsed on the set during rehearsals, provoking laughter from cast and crew who thought he was doing his "Elizabeth, I'm coming to join you!" routine from Sanford and Son. He had, however, suffered a fatal heart attack, dying in harness as he no doubt would have wished.

—Joyce Linehan