Friday, January 14, 2022

The 50th Anniversary of Sanford and Son

It was 50 years ago today, on January 14 1972,  that the sitcom Sanford and Son debuted on NBC. Sanford and Son centred on junk dealer Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his son Lamont (Demond Wilson). Fred was a bit lazy, sarcastic, and prone to get rich schemes. As to Lamont, he simply wanted to expand his horizons beyond his father's junkyard. The conflict between the two fuelled the plots of many of the show's episodes throughout the show's run. Sanford and Son proved to be a hit upon its debut and ranked no. 6 for the year in the Nielsens during its first season. Ultimately Sanford and Son remained in the top ten shows each year for five of its six seasons.

Sanford and Son was based on the hit British sitcom Steptoe and Son. Debuting in 1962 on BBC 1, Steptoe and Son was phenomenally successful in the Untied Kingdom. At its height, up to 25 million viewers (around half the population of Britain) tuned into Steptoe and Son. Such success did not go unnoticed in the United States, so that movie producer Joseph E. Levine bought the rights to do an American version of the show. Produced in 1965, the pilot featured Lee Tracy as Albert Steptoe and Aldo Ray as his son Harold. The pilot failed to sell and never aired in the United States. One further attempt at another American pilot got no further than the planning stages.

Joseph E. Levine retained the rights to an American version of Steptoe and Son until 1971. Once Mr. Levine's rights had lapsed, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin bought the rights to do an American version of the show. At the time Mr. Lear was fresh from his success with All in the Family, itself an adaptation of the hit British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part. With Norman Lear preoccupied with All in the Family, Bud Yorkin brought Aaron Ruben, a veteran of such sitcoms as The Phil Silvers Show and The Andy Griffith Show, onto the project. A pilot was shot with Bernard Hughes as an Irish American junk dealer and Paul Sorvino as his son who favoured his mother's Italian side. This pilot never made it to series.

It was then decided that their junk dealer and son in their American version of Steptoe and Son should be Black. Messrs. Yorkin and Ruben approached Cleavon Little about doing the pilot, but he declined due to other commitments. While Mr. Little was unable to do the pilot, he did suggest to them comedian Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx had appeared in the movie Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) with Cleavon Little. He played the character of junk dealer Uncle Budd. Redd Foxx was a comedian with a successful nightclub act and was even one of the first Black comedians to play the Las Vegas Strip.

Redd Foxx would have an enormous impact on shaping Sanford and Son. He even gave the show its name. Redd Foxx was born James Elroy Sanford. His older brother, Fred Sanford, Jr. provided his character's first name. While the majority of first season episodes were based directly on Steptoe and Son scripts, it differed from the British sitcom in that Redd Foxx brought a strong dose of Black comedy to Sanford and Son. Race was never too far from the forefront on Sanford and Son. For the role of Fred's son Lamont, Demond Wilson was cast. Mr. Wilson had played a burglar in the All in the Family episode ""Edith Writes a Song."

Rehearsals for the pilot began in August 1971 at CBS's Fairfax Studio. Given All in the Family had been a success for CBS, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin tried to interest that network's executives in attending rehearsals, but none of them did. Bud Yorkin then contacted his old friend Herb Schlosser, then NBC's vice president in charge of West Coast programming. Curiously, Mr. Schlosser had made the deal to get the rights to Steptoe and Son for the earlier pilot produced by Joseph E. Levine and starring Lee Tracy and Aldo Ray. Being familiar with both Steptoe and Son and Redd Foxx's comedy, Herb Schlosser was immediately interested. He then arranged for Mort Werner, NBC's senior vice president for programming, to attend the taping of the pilot. Messrs. Schosser and Werner then had to venture onto their archrival network's territory, the pilot being shot at CBS. In the end NBC committed to picking up 17 episodes of Sanford and Son, set to start in January 1972.

Sanford and Son debuted on January 14 1972 to generally positive reviews. Joan Crosby in the "TV Scout" syndicated newspaper column wrote of the show, "Good news: Sanford and Son is a funny program." Joyce Haber, columnist for The Los Angeles Times, wrote, "And if my opinion means anything, it's warm but stingingly hilarious, sharply written (by Aaron Ruben) and timed show which deserves the top honour." The New York Daily News named Sanford and Son, "...a warm, funny show." This is not to say that some did not have a negative view of the show, especially in the Black community. Walter Burrell, columnist for Soul magazine, was particularly critical of how Lamont treated Fred in the early episodes, writing, "To say the younger man was disrespectful would be an understatement." As late as June 17 1973, after which the show had seen considerable success, Eugenia Collier wrote in The New York Times, "For in spite of Redd Foxx's jokes and Demond Wilson's black beauty, Sanford and Son remains white to the core."

Audiences obviously agreed with the majority of positive reviews rather than the minority of negative ones. For the week ending January 16 1972, the premiere of Sanford and Son came in at no. 5 in the Nielsen ratings. Over the following weeks it continued to be successful, ultimately ranking no. 6 for the 1971-1972 season. It would be even more successful in its second season, ranking no. 2 for the year, right behind All in the Family.

While Sanford and Son was a hit from the beginning, it would take some time for it to become the show that most of us remember. In the first season Lamont could be rather hard on his father, and could even be perceived as disrespectful at times. Lamont even referred to Fred's girlfriend Donna Harris (Lynn Hamilton) as "the barracuda" and would even go so far as to try to sabotage Fred and Donna's relationship. Among the critics of Lamont's attitude towards his father were no less than Redd Foxx and Desmond Wilson themselves. Fortunately Aaron Ruben softened Lamount's attitude towards Fred and their relationship became a warmer, more loving one. Lamont's attitude towards Donna was even changed, to where he was even friendly towards her. In the end, Lamont became a character who, while at times annoyed by his father's behaviour, was still devoted to him.

Another way in which the first season of Sanford and Son differed from the show most of us remember is that many of its most memorable characters were not yet on the show. The first season would see the introduction of only three of the show's best known characters. The first was Officer "Smitty" Smith (Hal Williams), a Black police officer whose beat includes Fred's neighbourhood. Smitty's original partner on the show was Officer "Swanny" Swanhauser (Noam Pitlik), who would speak in police jargon that Smitty would have to translate for Fred. He was replaced early in the second season by Officer Howard "Hoppy" Hopkins, who would  not only speak in police jargon, but would always get slang terms wrong (for instance, "right up" instead of "right on").  Also appearing in the first season was Fred's girlfriend Donna Harris, a practical nurse who tended to be so sweet natured that she was even able to tolerate Fred's antics for the most part.

It was the second season that would see the arrival of Fred's best known foil, Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page). In the first season Fred's primary antagonist was Aunt Ethel (Beah Richards), who was constantly expressing her disapproval of the junk dealer. It was in the second season that she was replaced by Aunt Esther. Aunt Esther was the sister of Fred's late wife Elizabeth and had never approved of the marriage. While Esther loves her nephew Lamont and he loves her as well, she has nothing but disdain for Fred. A devout Christian, she often calls him, "You old heathen!" Despite being a devout Christian, it was not unusual for her to threaten Fred with violence and she would even hit him with her purse from time to time. LaWanda Page, who played Esther, had met Redd Foxx when they were both still in elementary school in St. Louis. And like Redd Foxx, she would have a successful career in stand-up comedy. She had actually decided to leave show business when Redd Foxx asked her to audition for the role of Esther.

Lamont's friend Rollo (Nathaniel Taylor) was also introduced in the second season. Rollo had spent time in jail, and so Fred remained convinced he was a criminal. What is more, Fred never missed a chance to remind Rollo of that fact. Nathaniel Taylor was also a former resident of St. Louis, and it was in part due to this fact that he was cast in the role of Rollo. It was also in the second season that Fred's friend Bubba (Don Bexley) was introduced. Bubba was a jovial fellow who would eagerly take part in any of Fred's get-rich-quick schemes. He always greeted Fred with a loud, bellowing, "Hey, Fred!," something that not only got on Lamont's nerves, but Fred's as well. Like Redd Foxx and LaWanda Page, Don Bexley was also a stand-up comedian and he and Mr. Foxx had met while working as stand-up comedians.

Even though he is now closely associated with the show, Fred's best friend Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo) would not join Sanford and Son until the second episode of the third season. Grady was good-natured and easy going, but, not terribly bright. Like Bubba, he also often became involved in Fred's get-rich-quick schemes. Grady was a devoted friend and his feelings could be easily hurt. Grady became one of the most popular characters on the show, so much he would eventually received his own spin-off series. Although Grady was in his sixties, at the time Whitman Mayo was playing him, he was only in his forties.

Among the other recurring characters was Julio Fuentes (Gregory Siera), Fred and Lamont's Puerto Rican next door neighbour and fellow junk dealer. Fred would often hurl ethnic slurs at Julio and even say that he should return to Puerto Rico (even though Julio was from New York City). In contrast, Julio always remained friendly towards Fred. Despite constantly insulting Julio, Fred does seem to like him deep down in side. When a local elementary school wants to demote Julio's nephew to a lower grade because he is not proficient in English, it is Fred who takes up for him. May Hopkins (Nancy Kulp), Officer Hoppy Hopkins's mother, started appearing in the fifth season. She rents a room at the Sanford Arms, the boarding house that Fred and Lamont opened after Julio sold them his property and moved away.

Sanford and Son featured its share of famous guest stars. George Foreman, Lena Horne, B. B. King all guest starred as themselves. The show also featured such well known guest stars as Jack Carter, Scatman Crothers, Greg Morris, Frank Nelson, and Mary Wickes.

Sanford and Son continued to be a hit in its third season, coming in at no. 3 for the year. All would not run smoothly for NBC during that season. Despite being a show centred on a Black junk dealer and his son, the majority of writers on Sanford and Son were white. At the same time, the show was a huge hit and Redd Foxx was only receiving $19,000 per episode. Redd Foxx then demanded 25% ownership of the show. When his demands weren't answered, he walked out. For the remaining six episodes of the third season, it was explained that Fred had gone to St. Louis to attend his cousin's funeral. Grady then took over the running of the Sanford household. The success of these episodes featuring only Grady and Lamont would be part of the reason that Grady would receive his own spin-off. Grady had the character move in with his daughter's family who lived in Westwood. The show debuted on December 4 1974. It did not repeat the success of Sanford and Son, lasting only ten episodes. After the spin-off ended, Grady returned to Sanford and Son.

As to Redd Foxx's salary dispute, it resulted in a lawsuit from Tandem Productions. Eventually the salary dispute was resolved, with Redd Foxx receiving a raise of $25,000 per episode and 25% of the producers' net profits. Redd Foxx then returned to the show for its fourth season.

That fourth season proved to be more successful than its third, with the show rising once more to no. 2 in the Nielsen ratings for the year. Sanford and Son would not maintain that level of success for long. It dropped to no. 7 for the year in its fifth season. In its sixth season it dropped to no. 27 for the year. Of course, coming in at no. 27 for the year was more than enough for NBC to renew the show, but circumstances would ultimately result in the show's end. ABC drew Redd Foxx away from NBC with an offer of a multimillion dollar contract and his own variety show. Sanford and Son then ended with its sixth season. As it turned out, Redd Foxx might have wished he had remained with Sanford and Son. The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour only lasted from September 15 1977 to January 26 1978.

In attempt to salvage the situation, NBC decided to continue Sanford and Son after a fashion. Initially it was planned for Demond Wilson to star, but he left following a salary dispute. A new lead character was then introduced, Phil Wheeler (Theodore Wilson), an old friend of Fred, who bought the Sanford property after Fred and Lamont had moved to Arizona. Still appearing on the show were Esther, Bubba, and Grady. The focus of the show was shifted to the boarding house that Fred and Lamont had opened, the Sanford Arms. Sanford Arms did not last long. Although eight episodes were made, only four episodes aired before the show was cancelled.

While Sanford Arms was a failure, it was not the last that television would see of Fred Sanford. By 1979 NBC had fallen in its fortunes. It was perhaps for that reason that then President of NBC Fred Silverman decided to lure Redd Foxx back to the network to play Fred Sanford once again. While Redd Foxx would return as Fred, Demond Wilson was not returning as Lamont. The new series, simply titled Sanford, then gave Fred a new partner in the junk business. Cal Petite (Dennis Burkley) was jovial Texan and eternal optimist. Of characters from the original show, only Rollo (who now worked for Fred) and Officers Smitty and Hoppy appeared in the first season. The second season saw Esther join the show as a regular character, and Grady appeared in two episodes. Sanford was ultimately not the success that Sanford and Son was, and it ended its run on July 10 1981.

In many ways Sanford and Son was a groundbreaking series. Prior to its debut only a few sitcoms had centred on Black characters. In the Fifties there was Amos and Andy and Beulah, both of which featured offensive stereotypes. Julia debuted in 1968 and broke new ground in centring on a Black woman who was not portrayed as a stereotype. It was followed in 1969 by The Bill Cosby Show, which marked the first time an African American starred in his own self-titled show. While both Julia and The Bill Cosby Show saw some success, it would be Sanford and Son that would lead to the creation of several sitcoms centred on Black characters during the Seventies. Good Times, The Jeffersons, What's Happening!!, and others owed their existence largely to the success of Sanford and Son.

Beyond spurring the creation of other sitcoms centred on Black characters, Sanford and Son also brought Black comedy into the mainstream. Prior to Sanford and Son, the only exposure much of the United States might have to Black comedy was appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and other variety shows of such comedians as Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, Slappy White, and even Redd Foxx himself, as well as others. Redd Foxx was able to incorporate a good deal of his own comedy into Sanford and Son. He also consistently cast his fellow Black comedians on the show, including Don Bexley, Leroy & Skillet, LaWanda Page, and Slappy White. The show would eventually use Black writers as well. Richard Pryor wrote episodes, as did Paul Mooney. Along with The Flip Wilson ShowSanford and Son may well have been the first exposure many white people had to Black humour.

Prior to its debut, Sanford and Son was often touted as NBC's answer to All in the Family. While Sanford and Son was never overtly political the way that All in the Family was (Fred did not stand around talking about politics), various issues of concern to its Black viewers were addressed on the show. Indeed, Sanford and Son was set in Watts in Los Angeles. As a result there were occasional reference to the Watts Uprising of 1965 and social unrest in general. The Los Angeles Police Department was at times satirized through the characters of Smitty and Hoppy. The poverty in which Fred and Lamont lived was always close to the forefront of episodes. For much of the Sixties sitcoms portrayed people firmly belonging to the middle class. Even Julia on the TV Show Julia and Chet Kincaid on The Bill Cosby Show were part of the middle class. In contrast, the Sanfords were poor. While Fred owned his own business, the two of them often had to make due with regards to food. There were times they couldn't pay their bills. One often got the feeling that Fred was always in danger of losing his business. Many Americans, not just African Americans, could probably more identify with Fred and Lamont than they could the Bradys on The Brady Bunch or even the Bunkers on All in the Family, let alone the various other middle class families on television in the early Seventies. 

Sanford and Son proved to be a hit upon its debut and it would have a highly successful run in syndication. It currently airs on TV One and can be seen on several streaming services. What is more, its success sees no chance of ending. It is safe to say Sanford and Son will be around for another fifty years.

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