Sanford and Son

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Sanford and Son

The NBC television sitcom, Sanford and Son, was created by writer-director and independent producer, Norman Lear, whose lengthy list of successful, long-running, and often controversial television programs revolutionized primetime television during the 1970s. The popular program chronicled the escapades of Mr. Fred G. Sanford, a cantankerous widower living with his thirty-something son, Lamont, played by Demond Wilson, in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California. Sanford and Son was the first program with a most Black cast to appear since the cancellation of the Amos 'n Andy show nearly twenty years earlier.

Airing from 1972 to 1977, Sanford and Son was the American version of a British program called Steptoe & Son, which featured the exploits of a Cockney father-and-son junkman team. In the starring role of Sanford and Son was veteran actor-comedian John Elroy Sanford, popularly known as Redd Foxx, whose bawdy recordings and racy nightclub routines had influenced generations of Black comics since the 1950s. Foxx was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and began a career in the late 1930s performing street acts. By the 1960s he was headlining in Los Vegas. In 1969, he earned a role as an aging junk dealer in the motion picture Cotton Comes to Harlem. This portrayal brought him to the attention of producer Norman Lear, who was casting his newest show, Sanford and Son.

In addition to its two stars—Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson—Sanford and Son featured a unique, multiracial cast of regular and occasional characters, who served as the butt of Sanford's often bigoted jokes and insults, including Bubba (Don Bexly), Smitty the cop (Hal Williams), Grady (Mayo Williams), Julio (Gregory Sierra), Rollo (Nathaniel Taylor) and Ah Chew (Pat Molina). LaWanda Page played the "evil and ugly" Aunt Esther, Fred's archenemy. Their constant bickering and put-downs of each other provided some of the funniest moments in the show. "I'm convinced that Sanford and Son shows middle class America a lot of what they need to know… " Foxx said in a 1973 interview, "The show … doesn't drive home a lesson, but it can open up people's minds enough for them to see how stupid every kind of prejudice can be."

The "feigned heart attack routine" became a trademark of the series as Fred, pretending to have a heart attack, clasped his chest in mock pain and threatened to join his deceased wife, saying "I'm coming to join you, Elizabeth!" It was Foxx's enormously funny portrayal that quickly earned Sanford and Son a place among the top ten most-watched programs to air on NBC television.

"Certain things should be yours to have when you work your way to the top," declared Redd Foxx in a Los Angeles Times article. In 1977 he walked-out on the production of his enormously successful show complaining that the mostly white producers and writers had little regard or understanding of African-American life. He lambasted the total lack of Black writers or directors on the crew. Moreover, he was dissatisfied with his treatment as the star of the program. Believing that his efforts were not appreciated, he left NBC for his own variety show on ABC. The program barely lasted one season. After Foxx left, a pseudo spin-off, called Sanford Arms proved unsuccessful and it too, lasted only one season.

Sanford and Son survived five seasons on prime-time television. It earned its place in television history as one of the first successful television sitcoms with a mostly Black cast to appear on American network, primetime television in nearly twenty years. It was an enormously funny program, sans obvious ethnic stereotyping. Redd Foxx died at sixty-eight in October 1994.

—Pamala S. Deane

Further Reading:

Adler, Dick. "How Redd Outfoxed the Competition." Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1977.

Barnow, Eric. Tube of Plenty. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1985.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago, Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1983

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law, America's Greatest TV Shows and People Who Created Them. Boston, Little Brown, 1992.

Robinson, Louie. "Sanford and Son: Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson wake up TV's jaded audience." Ebony, July, 1972.

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Sanford and Son

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