By Odienator (Click here for all posts)
After his success with the CBS series All in the Family, Norman Lear looked once again to the BBC for his next series. Lear chose Steptoe and Son, a Brit-com about a junkman running a salvage yard with his son. Father and son were always at odds, with the elder having a reputation for being mean, lazy and lecherous. The show was darker and nastier than BBC viewers had been used when it premiered in the mid 60's, making it perfect for the troublemaking Lear. He recast the show with Black people, set it in Watts, plopped in on CBS' rival network, NBC, and called it Sanford and Son. It was a hit, becoming the second most watched show for three of its six year run.
Despite being cancelled in 1977, Sanford and Son still has a loyal following, including yours truly. Like the Jeffersons, the show depicted a bigoted Black businessman who hatched numerous schemes to achieve his goals. Unlike George Jefferson, I had no desire to be like S&S's Fred Sanford. As anal as I am about dirt, the last place I wanted to be was a junkyard.
Fred G. Sanford was a 65 year old man with a mutable middle name (the G stood for whatever the occasion called for) and an affinity for incredibly mean one-liners. His British counterpart was always referred on Steptoe as "a dirty old man," and Lear cast one of the dirtiest men to play the American equivalent, stand-up comedian Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx was so dirty that even his name was two four letter words. Foxx glued on a paunch and a nappy beard to play Fred, making himself look more haggard than normal. Foxx casually morphed his movements to suit a body supposedly ravaged by "arthur-itis" and heart problems, aging himself 15 years in the process.
Foxx brought some of his own life into the show. His government surname was Sanford, and the character took Foxx's late brother's first name. Both Fred and Redd were from St. Louis and had Indian ancestry (Foxx was one-quarter Seminole Indian). Most infamously, Foxx made good on the fatal heart attack he was constantly threatening to have whenever something upset Fred Sanford. "This is the big one, Elizabeth!" Fred would yell heavenward to his late wife as he'd clutch his heart and hilariously stumble around. On the set of Foxx's last sitcom, The Royal Family, Foxx's pantomime of a heart attack turned out to actually be "the big one."
As the son of the title, Lear cast Grady Demond Wilson, a New York stage actor who once appeared on All in the Family. Wilson played Lamont, Fred's only son and partner in the Watts salvage yard located at 9114 South Central Avenue. Lamont drove the red 1951 Ford pickup truck used to pick up items for the junkyard, while Fred stayed at home to greet and/or insult customers. As on All in the Family, the younger generation represented a more liberal set of ideas than the prior, though during the first season, he was almost as pigheaded and mean as his father. Fred constantly referred to his son by "his middle name, dummy."
Unlike Archie, Fred aimed most of his bigotry at other minorities, a more true to life representation of his surroundings and most ghettos. Fred's next door neighbor and friend of Lamont, Julio, ran the risk of being verbally assaulted with Puerto Rican jokes whenever he visited. Lamont's other friend, Ah Chew (Foxx's pal, comedian Pat Morita, way before Mr. Miyagi and Arnold) was the subject of Fred's Asian putdowns. But Fred saved most of his vitriol for fellow Black people. Lamont's friend Rollo (Nathaniel Taylor) was the target of Fred's not-always-inaccurate comments about thuggish behavior, but that was nothing compared to Fred's antics with his sisters-in-law, Ethel (legend Beah Richards) and Esther. (Elizabeth's parents must have had a fetish for names beginning with E.) Lamont's Aunt Esther was portrayed by yet another of the filthiest comedians alive, LaWanda Page. Esther replaced Ethel in the second season of the show, and her cruel banter and battles with Fred remain the stuff of sitcom legend. Unlike the other victims, Esther fought back, sometimes with the help of her favorite person in the world, de Lawd. The zealous Baptist background of Esther was ironic; Ms. Page once told the dirtiest Jesus joke I have ever heard.
Fred's friends (and mortal enemy, Esther) were portrayed by a slew of people Foxx worked with at one time or another during his chitlin' circuit days. Slappy White played Melvin (his actual name), Leroy & Skillet played themselves and even Stymie from the Little Rascals showed up at one time or another during the show's run. Grady (Whitman Mayo) and Bubba (Don Bexley) were Fred's most consistent running partners, scheming to get rich, insult Esther, chase women and drink as much ripple as possible. Ripple was one of the show's running jokes, as Fred and Grady were always finding new things to do with the wine that was so fresh one could still taste the foot that crushed the grape. At one point, Fred mixed 7-Up with ripple, calling it "Champipple."
Throughout the show, Lamont had plenty of girlfriends he and Rollo would entertain (and when they weren't doing that, they were at the porn theater). Fred had a constant, much younger girlfriend named Donna (Lynn Hamilton). Lamont didn't understand why a woman 20+ years his Pop's junior would be interested in Fred, and during the first seasons of the show he took an intense dislike to the woman he called "the barracuda." Esther disliked her as well, presumably because she was replacing her late sister, but she never referred to her by animal comparison. Fred had no such restriction on what he called Esther.
Some of the funniest moments in the show stem from the interplay between Foxx and Page. Friends for much of their lives, they have genuine comic chemistry. Esther would show up at Fred's door, clutching her purse and Bible and wearing the same hat and pious expression I saw every Sunday at my Baptist church. Fred would grimace, and then proceed to pummel Esther with ugly jokes likening her to King Kong and Godzilla. Esther would return the favor, calling Fred a "heathen," and (my personal favorite) a "fish-eyed fool." When she didn't have a good comeback, she'd either attempt to pummel Fred with her purse or snap out her catchphrase, "Watch it, sucka!" One of the funniest moments in my young life occurred when Fred told Esther "you so ugly, I could stick your face in some dough and make gorilla cookies!" Esther was so unattractive that the running joke was her appearance had driven her alcoholic husband, Woodrow, to drink.
Foxx wasn’t the only person who brought real-life items into the show. One of my favorite moments involved a charity function where Esther did a fire-eating routine that Page used to incorporate into her act when she was on the circuit. It's a rare moment when Esther almost looks glamorous, and Page's performance of the routine was a shocker. It's also one of the rare moments when Fred is nice to Esther, convincing her to do the act as part of his show.
Sanford and Son was notable for Quincy Jones' catchy theme song, The Streetbeater, but it also served as a steppingstone for numerous comedians who wrote for the show. Richard Pryor penned episodes, as did Pryor's writing partner, Paul Mooney. Mooney, in fact, penned the most infamous line in the show's history. While at traffic court, Fred asks the traffic cop what he has against Black people. "Why don't you arrest any White people?" Fred asks. When the cop says he does, Fred notes that the entire courtroom is filled with Black people. "There's enough niggers in here to make a Tarzan movie!" he exclaims. Even more shocking than that line is the fact that Garry Shandling (yes, he of Showtime's It's Garry Shandling's Show and HBO's Larry Sanders) also wrote dialogue for Fred and company.
Sanford and Son was more ghetto than Good Times, with an emphasis on soul food cooking (Fred was always eating something Southern and unhealthy, like hog maws and chitlin's), pawn shops and hustling. A lot of the dialogue focused on discussions of then-predominantly Black places like St. Louis and Detroit, and the cops who visited Fred (Smitty and his Ebonics-maligning partner Hoppy) were typically incompetent. Fred's friends were realistically cast and acted, as were Lamont's. Taylor's Rollo and Page's Esther were so familiar they seemed to step out of my 'hood and into my TV. Most fascinating to me was the depiction, for better or worse, of a Black son who had been raised by, and continued to relate to, his father.
In an apparent homage to Steptoe and Son's famous catchphrase, Lamont once told Fred "Pop, you're a dirty old man!" Fred replied, "and I'ma be that way until I'm a dead old man." Truer words were never spoken by a comedian. Redd Foxx finally joined Elizabeth on October 11, 1991.
Aside: When I was about 8 years old, my cousin and I stumbled upon a Redd Foxx album her mother had. It had a big RATED G sign on it, which at the time confused me because I had only known Foxx from Sanford. I remembered that entire album by heart, and it took me 20 years to get its opening joke:
"You could see I was a World War II veteran. You could see I got shot in the face. And doctors grafted skin, they grafted more skin, they made me a new face. I don't know where they got the meat from, but every time I get tired my jaws wanna sit down."
When I was much older, I rented Redd Foxx's Video In A Plain Brown Wrapper (which is where most of the comedy clips I linked to can be found). It wasn't rated G. It featured one of Foxx's famous poems:
"I kissed her lips
And just for meanness,
She crossed her legs
And broke my glasses."
I got that one.