How Sanford and Son Cleaned Up Redd Foxx’s Act to Create a TV Icon
Fred G. Sanford was a junk man, and Redd Foxx was the master of trash talk. Sanford and Son turns 50.
Sanford and Son, the first mainstream, primetime sitcom in television history with an almost-all Black cast, debuted on NBC on Jan. 14, 1972. Created by Norman Lear, and starring legendary “blue” comedian Redd Foxx as an African American bigot, it was seen as a direct answer to CBS’ All in the Family. But the Bunker family series was a social satire which took its laughs seriously. The Sanfords presented pure comedy, any lessons it taught were intentionally coincidental. The most controversial part of the show, when it first aired, was its lead actor.
Foxx was already an underground comedy legend when Cleavon Little, best known for his role as Sheriff Bart in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, suggested him for the lead in the mid-season replacement. Little wasn’t available, but worked with Foxx on Ossie Davis’s 1970 neo-noir film Cotton Comes to Harlem. Before Foxx played the junk dealer stuck with the bale of genuine Mississippi cotton, he was known as the “King of the Party Records.”
In a time of repressed standup, Foxx worked notoriously “blue.” He agreed to clean up his act for television, but consistently fought to keep Sanford and Son authentically funny. Born John Elroy Sanford, raised on Chicago’s South Side, and relocated to Harlem, he was known for keeping it real. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), Malcolm X called “’Chicago Red,’ the funniest dishwasher on this earth.” Foxx started out as a singer, and ate half a bar of soap to get out of the draft during World War II. He got heart palpitations during the physical. But not “the big one, Elizabeth,” it was only a warm-up to one of the show’s running gags, which Foxx stole from his own mother.
“I’m 65. People say I look 55. I feel 45. I’d settle for 35 and you make me feel 25.”