SANFORD AND SON

U.S. Domestic Comedy

The 1972 NBC television program Sanford and Son chronicled the adventures of Fred G. Sanford, a cantankerous widower living with his grown son, Lamont, in the notorious Watts section of contemporary, Los Angeles, California. Independent producers, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin licensed the format of a British program, Steptoe & Son, which featured the exploits of a cockney junk dealer, and created Sanford and Son as an American version. Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons and Good Times, all produced by Lear and Yorkin, featured mostly black casts--the first such programming to appear since the Amos 'n' Andy show was canceled in a hailstorm debate in 1953.

The starring role of Sanford and Son was portrayed by actor-comedian Redd Foxx. Foxx (born John Elroy Sanford) was no newcomer to the entertainment industry. His racy nightclub routines had influenced generations of black comics since the 1950s. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Foxx began a career in the late 1930s performing street acts. During the 1950s he achieved a measure of success as a nightclub performer and recorder of bawdy joke albums. By the 1960s he was headlining in Las Vegas. In 1969, he earned a role as an aging junk dealer in the motion picture Cotton Comes to Harlem, a portrayal that brought him to the attention of Lear and Yorkin.

It was Foxx's enormously funny portrayal of sixty-five year old Fred G. Sanford that quickly earned Sanford and Son a place among the top-ten watched television programs to air on NBC television. He was supported by Lamont, his thirtyish son, and a multi-racial cast of regular and occasional characters who served as the butt of Sanford's often bigoted jokes and insults. Fred's nemesis, the "evil and ugly" Aunt Esther (portrayed by veteran actor, LaWanda Page), often provided the funniest moments of the episode, as she Fred traded jibes and insults. The trademark routine of the series occurred when Fred feigned a heart attack by clasping his chest in mock pain. Staggering drunkenly he would threaten to join his deceased wife Elizabeth, calling out "I'm coming to join you, Elizabeth!"

Though enormously successful, Foxx became dissatisfied with the show, its direction, and his treatment as star of the program. In a Los Angeles Times article, he stated, "Certain things should be yours to have when you work your way to the top." At one point he walked off the show complaining that the white producers and writers had little regard or appreciation of African-American life and culture. In newspaper interviews he lambasted the total lack of black writers or directors. Moreover, Foxx believed that his efforts were not appreciated, and in 1977 he left NBC for his own variety show on ABC. The program barely lasted one season.

Sanford and Son survived some five years on prime-time television. It earned its place in television history as the first successful, mostly black cast television sitcom to appear on American network, primetime television in twenty years since the cancellation of Amos 'n' Andy. It was an enormously funny program, sans obvious ethnic stereotyping. "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." After Foxx left the show permanently, a pseudo-spin-off, called Sanford Arms proved unsuccessful and lasted only one season.

-Pamala Deane


Sanford and Son

CAST

Fred Sanford................................................ Redd Foxx
Lamont Sanford ....................................Demond Wilson
Grady Wilson (1973-1977) .......................Whitman Mayo
Aunt Esther (1973-1977) .........................LaWanda Page
Woody Anderson (1976-1977).................. Raymond Allen
Bubba Hoover............................................. Don Bexley
Janet Lawson (1976-1977) .........................Marlene Clark
Roger Lawson (1976-1977).................... Edward Crawford
Donna Harris ...........................................Lynn Hamilton
Officer Swanhauser (1972) ...........................Noam Pitlik
Officer Hopkins ("Happy") (1972-1976) .........Howard Platt
Aunt Ethel (1972) ....................................Beah Richards
Julio Fuentes (1972-1975)........................ Gregory Sierra
Rollo Larson......................................... Nathaniel Taylor
Melvin (1972)............................................ Slappy White
Officer Smith ("Smitty") (1972-1976) ............Hal Williams
Ah Chew (1974-1975.....................................) Pat Morita

PRODUCER Norman Lear

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 136 Episodes

NBC
January 1972-September 1977                Friday 8:00-8:30
April 1976-August 1976                  Wednesday 9:00-9:30

FURTHER READING

Bogel, Donald. Blacks, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film. New York: Garland, 1973.

_______________. Blacks in American Television and Film. New York: Garland, 1988.

Friedman, Lester D. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for "Blackness." Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.

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.

Taylor, Ella. Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

 

See also Amen; Amos 'n' Andy; Comedy, Domestic Settings; Good Times; Lear, Norman; Racism, Ethnicity and Television; 227