As television moved into a more enlightened era during the 1970’s, African-American performers began to take more prominent roles on its shows. An early touchstone in this movement was Sanford And Son, a witty and timely sitcom that focused almost exclusively on African-American characters. It became one of the decade’s biggest and most memorable television hits, providing a venue for some of the greatest African-American talent of the time.
Sanford And Son was the American remake of Steptoe And Son, a British show about rag and bone man Albert Steptoe and his unable to break away son Harold. For Sanford And Son, the father-son duo was switched from cockney Englishmen to African-Americans, and the locale moved from England to California. The new show focused on the antics of Fred Sanford, a widower who lived in Watts with his son Lamont. Both men ran the family junk business, though Lamont aspired to doing something more rewarding and profitable. Fred was terrified at the idea Lamont might abandon the business and would threaten a heart attack when Lamont mentioned the idea: “I’m coming, Elizabeth! It’s the big one!” Despite this tension, the father-son duo obviously loved each other, and Lamont would always find a reason to stick around.
Other characters included Grady, Fred’s eternally mellow best friend, and Aunt Esther, Fred’s holy-rolling sister-in-law who ran a nearby boarding house called the Sanford Arms. She frequently found herself on the receiving end of taunts from Fred, but she could dish it out just as well as the old man (“You fish-eyed fool!”) Also around the junkyard and environs were Bubba Hoover, a blue-collar white man who became good friends with Fred, and Julio, a Puerto Rican friend of Lamont’s.
This diverse collection of characters made for an interesting brand of humor, but the undisputed comic highlight of the show was the legendary Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford. In many ways, Fred Sanford was like an African-American version of Archie Bunker: he wasn’t too tolerant of other races or cultures and was extremely set in his ways. He wasn’t afraid to call someone who disagreed with him a “dummy” and threatened people who challenged him with “I ain’t afraid to give you one across the lips!” Unlike Archie, though, Fred was a bachelor with an eye for the ladies. He was also a firm believer in the big score and always on the lookout for a quick way to make lots of money, a good example being the time he converted his kitchen into a Japanese restaurant after discovering his Japanese neighbor was a good cook.
Although his character overflowed with racist, sexist and misanthropic attitudes (all of which got plenty of laughs), Foxx managed to offset these potentially unpleasant qualities by bringing out the warmth and charm in Fred. Despite his frequent scheming, Fred was a just man and would see the error of his ways before the episode ended. He also took care of his own, even Aunt Esther. In fact, one of the most touching episodes of Sanford And Son involved Fred’s training Esther ‘how to be a lady’ for the Miss Watts Business beauty pageant. He even sang a witty duet with Esther for the talent portion of the show.
Redd Foxx also made the character of Fred shine with his one-of-a-kind comedic abilities. The funnyman had developed a great sense of comic timing through his many years as a stand-up comedian, and the “filmed live before a studio audience” format let him improvise many of his funniest lines. There have been many put-down artists over the years, but few had the skill of Fred Sanford when it came to the one-liner. A choice sample: “You are so ugly that if you pressed your face in some dough… you’d have gorilla cookies.” Fans also took great delight in Fred’s love of creating mixed drinks with Ripple wine, including favorites like “Champipple” (champagne and Ripple) and “Cripple” (cream and Ripple).
Foxx was also backed up by a talented collection of actors, including many performers hand-picked from the comedians he worked with during his stand-up days. La Wanda Page in particular made an excellent comedic foil for Sanford, and the verbal duels between high-minded Esther and self-styled “dirty old man” Fred were a consistent highlight of the show. Whitman Mayo also racked up many fans with his quietly funny turn as Grady. In fact, the Grady character was strong to carry the show for a stretch of episodes when Foxx briefly left during a contract dispute, and he later won his own short-lived spin-off, Grady.
In addition to the regulars, the show also worked in several roles for some fabulous guest stars, including Lena Horne, William Marshall, Della Reese, Scatman Crothers, Roscoe Lee Browne and Slappy White. The regular appearances of such performers made Sanford And Son an extremely valuable (and much coveted) venue for the many gifted African-American actors working at the time.
Sanford And Son also provided another valuable hit for Norman Lear, the hitmaking producer behind All In The Family. Like that 70’s stalwart,Sanford And Son mixed its observational humor with stories involving important issues of the day. Over the years, the show would tackle such topics as insurance fraud, homophobia, and interracial dating. The most important (and most frequently addressed) of these sensitive issues was racism within the African-American community. For instance, Fred had a fit on one episode when he discovered Lamont was dating a Puerto Rican woman. Much like Archie Bunker, though, his attitudes became more enlightened over time.
Again like All In The Family, Sanford And Son became an instant hit in the ratings. It went on to enjoy a successful five-season run and inspired Norman Lear to develop more African-American-themed sitcoms like Good Times and The Jeffersons. Sanford and Son finally came to an end in 1977 after both Redd Foxx and Demond Williams (Lamont) made the decision to move on.
The show’s long-term success inspired two spinoffs: 1977’s Sanford Arms, which focused on Aunt Esther and her boarding house, and 1980’s Sanford, an attempt at a full-on sequel show with Foxx. Neither enjoyed a long run, but their existence showed just how much viewers (and producers) lovedSanford And Son.
|1/14/72 – 9/2/77 NBC|
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|Bud Yorkin Productions, Norman Lear Productions|