On this day in comedy on January 14, 1972, ‘Sanford and Son’ premieres on NBC
Based on the British hit comedy, Steptoe and Son, the American version was the brainchild of producer Norman Lear (produced for he and partner Bud Yorkin’s Tandem Productions). Starring prolific stand-up comedian, Redd Foxx and actor, Demond Wilson (as the often naïve and combative, but dedicated to his ‘Pops”, Lamont Sanford), Sanford and Son was an instant hit for the network and remained so for its entire 6 season run.
A little-known fact is that Lincoln Perry (aka Stepin Fetchit) was originally cast in the part of the junkman in Watts, California with a cantankerous, acid tongue, stubborn nature and a streak of racism against ‘whitey’ (amongst others such as Puerto Rican neighbor, Julio, played by Gregory Sierra and Ah Chew played by Pat Morita), but when the NAACP zeroed in their focus on negative Black images, the shuffling Perry was replaced by Foxx, who owned the part and became a television icon.
The show was so popular it had two spin-offs (Sanford, Sanford Arms). Neither garnered the acclaim of the original which was in a class by itself. What made Sanford and Son so ground-breaking was its comedic and candid look at Black life. Before it came along there were hardly any Black sitcoms – period. After its success, a slew sprung up in the 1970s (The Jeffersons, Good Times, What’s Happening, That’s My Mama, Love Thy Neighbor) and beyond.
Written by a revolving team of comedians as well as seasoned writers that included Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney and Reynaldo Rey, the show dealt with St. Louis native, Fred G. Sanford (Foxx), his son, Lamont and their junkyard business. Lamont was always trying to move out and get a life of his own and Fred was constantly guilting him back in with frequent warnings that he’d have a heart attack and go to join Lamont’s deceased mother, Elizabeth in Heaven if Lamont were to leave him alone.
The running gags were plentiful: Fred and his get-rich-quick schemes to make Sanford and Son a huge financial success, Aunt Esther (played by pioneering comedienne, LaWanda Page) and her attempts to convert the heathen Fred to be the kind of Christian her departed sister would’ve been proud of, Fred’s affection for songstress, Lena Horne (who he finally met in one of the episodes), his gaggle of friends who hung out (comedians, Bubba Bexley, Slappy White, Leroy and Skillet, as well as actor Whitman Mayo as Grady), Lamont’s chum Rollo, who was also Lamont’s supplier of good times and sexy ladies, Fred’s own affection for the ladies (when he wasn’t dating his girlfriend, Donna (who Lamont refers to as ‘the barracuda’ because she was not his mother) – he kept them coming to “Casa Sanford”), the cops of the neighborhood, Smitty (Hal Williams) and Swanny (Noam Pitlik) and later Hoppy (Howard Platt); (one Black and one White, who always needed the Black one to translate what was said in ghetto terms by Fred or one of his pals and vice versa – other cops thrown in the mix were Jonesy (Bernie Hamilton and Percy (Pat Paulsen) and there was Fred’s need to refer to Lamont as “you big dummy”.
Behind the scenes, Foxx had recruited most of his old friends from the chitlin circuit to portray his on-camera comrades, including Page, who studio heads originally fired for her lack of television etiquette. However, Foxx was not only hilarious, making him indispensable to the program, but he was a loyalist. If she had to go – he had to go and so LaWanda Page also became a comedy legend with her take on the Bible-thumping sister from church who could turn on a dime and thump you upside the head in the name of the Lord.
Sanford and Son was a formula that crossed over effortlessly, to the point of driving it competitor, the seemingly invincible TV mainstay, “The Brady Bunch” off the air. But not all was well when Foxx took a few self-imposed hiatuses in disputes that he wasn’t being treated fairly. Rival sitcom star, Carroll O’Conner of the CBS hit and Norman Lear production, All in the Family, had a window in his dressing room. Foxx did not and he didn’t return until he got one. Foxx made sure he received the same perks and money the other stars of hit shows got at the time and paved the way for better conditions for future Black TV leads.
Sanford and Son received 3 Emmy Nominations for Best Series and Foxx chalked up the same number for Best Outstanding Actor. The top-rated show ended its run March 25, 1977.