Saturday, January 14, 2012
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In 1968, despite never having watched an episode, television producer Norman Lear purchased the rights to Till Death Us Do Part, a landmark U.K. sitcom that featured an unapologetic bigot as its main character. Lear was convinced that such a show could catch hold on the American side of the pond, and after two pilots were turned down by all three major networks he succeeded with All in the Family, which premiered on CBS in January 1971. The program would come to revolutionize television comedy in the U.S., eventually (after a slow start) leaping to the No. 1 position in the Nielsen ratings.
Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin, who produced All in the Family through their company Tandem Productions, decided to follow up Family’s success by adapting another sitcom that had a British pedigree; Steptoe and Son, a series about a father-and-son team of “rag and bone” (junk) merchants, had been a favorite of U.K. audiences since 1962 and both men were certain that the show could accommodate the viewing habits of U.S. viewers. Yorkin, with the help of veteran TV scribe Aaron Ruben, put together two separate pilots in mid-1971; one that starred Lee Tracy and Aldo Ray as the American versions of the Steptoes, the other with Barnard Hughes and Paul Sorvino as père et fils. It was only after seeing stand-up comedian Redd Foxx in his scene-stealing role as a junk dealer in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) that Yorkin and Ruben realized changing the ethnicity of the main characters to African-American was the way to go with their adaptation…and with that, the stage was set for the premiere of Sanford and Son 40 years ago on this date.
Redd Foxx’s birth name was John Elroy Sanford — and that surname was soon adopted as the same handle of the television character that would make the actor-comedian famous (the “Fred” was a tribute to Foxx’s older brother). Not that Redd Foxx was an unknown in show business; it’s just that he was more popular among black audiences as a familiar fixture in the 1940s and 1950s on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” (a nickname given to some famed black nightclubs of that era) in addition to recording a series of ribald (rated XXX for the times) “party” albums in the 1960s. At age 48, Foxx would be playing a 65-year-old widowed junk dealer but could no doubt be convincing due to his years of hard living (booze, cigarettes and drugs). Yorkin observed of the Man Who Would Be Sanford: “He was gray, and the way he walked on the show was pretty much the way he walked in real life. He had beaten himself up too much.” The role of Redd’s 30-year-old television son — to be dubbed Lamont Sanford — went to 24-year-old Demond Wilson, a young actor whose résumé included both Broadway and off-Broadway productions and who had made a favorable impression on Lear when Wilson guest-starred on an episode of All in the Family as one of two burglars (the other played by Cleavon Little, who had been approached originally by Yorkin to appear on the series but wound up recommending Foxx instead) ransacking the Bunker house. With the cast in place, Yorkin worked on a third pilot with Foxx and Wilson and after CBS President Fred Silverman passed on the show (a situation he once said was “one of the stupidest things I did at CBS”), it was snapped up by NBC executives Herb Schlosser and Mort Werner, who scheduled Sanford and Son as a mid-season replacement for The D.A. in January 1972.
At 9114 S. Central Ave., in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Fred G. Sanford and his son Lamont operate a combination junk/salvage/second-hand antiques store, and often struggle to make ends meet. Though both men ostensibly are partners in the business, Lamont did most of the work — driving the company’s pickup and doing the heavy lifting while father Fred functions as the “coordinator” of their inventory. Fred is, in many ways, the more childlike of the duo, often shirking his duties (like many adolescents) in favor of watching TV (his preferences lean to soap operas, game shows and Godzilla movies), playing cards and/or checkers and just generally goofing off. When called on his goldbricking by Lamont, Fred would complain about his “arthur-itis” (holding one hand up in a claw-like motion) and when that failed, would fake a heart attack at the drop of a hat, clutching his chest and hollering out “You hear that, Elizabeth? I’m comin’ to join you, honey!” (Elizabeth was Fred’s late wife.) Fred also possessed an irascible nature that often threatened to cleave the strong family ties between he and his son. He refers to Lamont as “you big dummy” and would raise his fist frequently to ask threateningly: “How would you like one ‘cross your lips?”
The stormy relationship between Fred and Lamont in the early years of Sanford and Son parallels that of its British counterpart (not surprisingly, since many of its scripts were retooled versions of the U.K. originals). Despite their incessant bickering, both father and son demonstrate real affection for one another and both could be out-and-out schemers when it came to the junk business. This gradually was phased out in later seasons, as Fred became more of a Ralph Kramden-like plotter determined to find ways to make a quick and easy buck, and Lamont morphed into a more level-headed individual patiently trying to get his dad to be more open-minded and accepting of people’s cultural differences. For Fred Sanford also was, in the tradition of his white All in the Family counterpart Archie Bunker, an unrepentant bigot, whose contempt for other races, sexes and creeds — whites, Latinos, Asians, women and even gays — knew no bounds and, as such, his prejudicial views frequently caused son Lamont endless headaches.
However, there was a subtly subversive characteristic in Fred Sanford’s detrimental make-up: Sanford and Son, like All in the Family, may have satirized prejudice by lampooning its bigoted main character and emphasized its absurdity by making certain those individuals suffered the consequences of their backward thinking, but it often seemed as if Fred got off a little easier than Archie. Bunker would be challenged by other characters on his offensive remarks but with Sanford, not so much. The “lessons” that Family placed special emphasis on weekly weren’t always in full force on Sanford. It seemed to eschew topicality in favor of what author Paul Mavis calls “guilt-free racial humor.” Re-visiting episodes of Sanford and Son reveals that much of the show’s insult-based comedy is most assuredly un-P.C., and if anyone attempted to offer up a series cultivating such a freedom of expression to a network today, they would most definitely be on the receiving end of a media backlash, despite the groundbreaking nature of the show’s portrayal of an integrated neighborhood in the 1970s. Fred and Lamont may have resided in lower-income environs but they shared the same square-foot yardage with Jews, Latinos (Gregory Sierra’s Julio Fuentes) and Asians (Pat Morita’s Ah Chew).
To emphasize how pioneering Sanford and Son was in its five years on the air, film critic Gene Siskel once wrote, “What All in the Family did for the Caucasian race in our nation with television, Sanford and Son did for African Americans. It is one of the two most noted and significant African-American sitcoms since the invention of television.” I don’t know which other sitcom Siskel references, but even though Sanford was awarded recognition by many scholars for its innovations, a second look at the series reveals that it was in many ways an updated Amos ‘n’ Andy for the 1970s. The lead character of Fred Sanford, with his endless conniving and scheming, wasn’t too far removed from George “Kingfish” Stevens, and Fred’s nemesis on the show, sister-in-law “Aunt Esther” Anderson (LaWanda Page), was a direct descendant of Kingfish’s shrewish spouse Sapphire. Many of Fred’s pals on the show — Melvin (Slappy White), Bubba (Don Bexley), Leroy (Leroy Daniels), “Skillet” (Ernest Mayhand), etc. — could all be members-in-good-standing “of that great fraternity, the Mystic Knights of the Sea.” Fred’s best buddy, the eternally befuddled Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo), was interchangeable as both the show’s resident Andrew H. Brown and the Mystic Knights’ slow-witted janitor, Lightnin’. The minstrelsy of Sanford could be attributed to the fact that the series, like the earlier A&A, was written mostly by white comedy scribes, including a young Garry Shandling before he turned to standup comedy, (a sore point with star Redd Foxx, who fiercely lobbied for more black writers and directors on the show) but when you also take into consideration that Foxx was an Amos ‘n’ Andy fan (he often waved away that series’ controversial nature by simply arguing that “funny is funny”) the comparison isn’t perhaps all that coincidental.
Sanford and Son’s premiere in 1972 gave NBC a solid hit on its Friday night schedule (long considered by industry wags to be a “death sentence”); it finished as the sixth-rated TV series in the Nielsen ratings in its first short season and for three seasons after that, was second only to All in the Family in viewership. Foxx’s instant celebrity from the sitcom eventually led to his dissatisfaction with what he was being paid for his role (he started out at $7,500 an episode, the same salary that Carroll O’Connor started out with on Family) and midway during the 1973-74 season, he walked off the show in protest. To explain Foxx's departure, the show introduced a storyline where Fred was away in his native St. Louis attending a cousin’s funeral and Grady had been put in charge of the business (and Lamont) in his absence. When Sanford’s ratings remained consistent despite its missing star, however, Foxx returned to the fold. While the show continued its ratings dominance for a time afterward, the seams already were starting to show; the plots got a bit sillier (Sanford fell back on the same gambit that was prevalent on The Lucy Show, making each outing a “guest star of the week”) and more outlandish. Foxx’s longtime cocaine addiction didn’t do him any favors, and co-star Wilson also developed a substance abuse problem (as well as numerous disagreements with the show’s production staff). Occasionally, the sitcom indulged in a bit of self-reflexive almost meta-humor as in an episode when Fred enters a Redd Foxx look-a-like contest and plays both parts. The best example was the fifth season episode "Steinberg and Son" when Fred and Lamont discover a new TV sitcom appears to be based on their life, except all the characters are Jewish. They file suit, but then Fred sees it as his chance for stardom and gives tips to the actor play the Jewish Fred Sanford (Lou Jacobi) on how to react to the Aunt Esther equivalent. John Larroquette plays the Jewish Lamont. Robert Guillaume appears as Fred and Lamont's lawyer. The final inside joke comes when it turns out the show was written by a cousin of Rollo's and they asks the young African-American man why he didn't make the characters black, but he says no one would buy that. It's one of the more clever later episodes. In its final season, Sanford and Son was ranked No. 27 in the ratings, still respectable for a renewal, but by that time Foxx had been lured away to ABC for more money and a comedy-variety hour bearing his name. Demond Wilson couldn’t come to terms with Sanford’s producers so he called it quits as well. The result was a spin-off series (the show’s second; its first was a program starring the Whitman Mayo character, Grady, in 1975-76) entitled The Sanford Arms that starred Teddy Wilson as Phil Wheeler, who buys the rooming house next door that Fred and Lamont rented out to boarders for supplemental income. Sanford returnees who made appearances included Mayo, and Bexley. (Eight episodes were filmed, but the series was canceled after four.)
Foxx’s ABC effort may have lasted longer (four months) than Sanford Arms but since the comedian remained out of work, he returned to NBC in March 1980 to try and halt the network’s slide into third place with a revival of his hit '70s series re-titled Sanford (no “and Son” because Demond Wilson wasn’t interested; the Lamont character was sent up north to work on the Alaskan Pipeline). Fred Sanford was just as cranky as ever but he had a new partner in the junk business (the go-to thespian for rednecks, Dennis Burkley) and a new girlfriend (Marguerite Ray) whose wealthy family detested him. (The whereabouts of Fred’s old girlfriend on Son, Donna “The Barracuda” Harris — played by actress Lynn Hamilton — went unexplained.) Lamont’s best friend from the previous series, Rollo Larson (Nathaniel Taylor), was now a regular on the show and the characters of Aunt Esther, Grady and Officers “Smitty” (Hal Williams) & “Hoppy” (Howard Platt) turned up from time to time as well but without Demond Wilson’s participation, the series fizzled after two attempts (both of its seasons were as mid-season replacements). Foxx would go on to two other attempts to re-create the sitcom magic of Sanford and Son, notably with The Royal Family in 1991. Midway through this Eddie Murphy-produced sitcom (which paired Foxx with co-star Della Reese), Redd suffered a heart attack while filming an episode. Sadly, the cast and crew mistakenly thought he was gagging it up with his old Sanford “Comin’-to-join-ya-Elizabeth” routine. (When they figured out it was no joke, it came too late to save the comedian’s life.)
One of the longest-lasting legacies of Sanford and Son takes less than a minute. Composed by Quincy Jones, the series' theme (its official title is "The Streetbeater") has such an infectious beat that even people who have never seen an episode of the sitcom can likely make a good attempt at humming it. In fact, on Scrubs, J.D. did exactly that once to try to get Turk into a good mood. Thanks to YouTube, here is the series' opening with Jones' track.
The stars of Steptoe and Son, Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett, might have made small screen magic during their long TV partnership but according to several sources, their relationship off-screen was quite acrimonious. The same charge has been leveled at Sanford and Son’s Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson — but in re-visiting the series, one can’t help but marvel at the chemistry between the two actors in their roles. Lamont, despite suffering from the indignities and difficulties generated by his cantankerous father, really does love and respect Fred and you can see it in how actor Wilson will sometimes grin at Foxx when Redd does a bit of business that tickles him. A character like Fred G. Sanford probably would be intolerable in real life, but Foxx exhibits a pixie-ish temperament (his apologetic wave at a person he’s gone too far insulting or his petulant pout at being scolded like a mischievous kid) that makes him endearing despite his shortcomings. A genuine artifact of the 1970s; Sanford and Son’s uncompromising humor still resonates with audiences today both on DVD and in endless reruns; furthermore, it laid the groundwork for future hits from the Norman Lear stable, including Good Times and The Jeffersons. And in the words of the immortal Redd Foxx: funny is funny. That’s all you need to know, you big dummy.