Based in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Foxx (real name John Sanford) played “Fred G. Sanford,” which was also his brother’s name. A widower, he ran his junk and salvage company with his son, “Lamont,” who was portrayed by Demond Wilson. White television producer Norman Lear was responsible in bringing “Sanford and Son” to life, adapting the show after a BBC program called “Steptoe And Son.” The show was seen as the Black version of Lear’s other popular program “All in the Family,” which featured the bigoted “Archie Bunker” as played by Carroll O’Connor.
Foxx’s character was supposed to be an older man of 65, far older than his actual age during the show. With his gravelly voice, staggered gait, and humorous quips (often at his son’s expense), Sanford could incite laughter just by appearing on the screen. Lamont was a butt of a running catchphrase – “You Big Dummy!” – that still hits with the same punch as it did then. Other characters also figured prominently in the “Sanford and Son” universe.
“Esther Anderson” (played by comedian LaWanda Page) was Sanford’s main nemesis. The sister of his late-wife, Aunt Esther endured insults before launching in to her own assault (“fish-eyed fool”) complete with her swinging pocketbook. “Grady Wilson” (played by Whitman Mayo) was Sanford’s best friend, often bailing out his pal who was always involved in a hustle of some sorts.
An interesting bit of trivia: Grady Wilson is the real name of the actor who played Lamont. “Bubba Bexley” was also party to Sanford’s harebrained schemes, often helping his friend concoct schemes for money.
Lamont was clearly second fiddle to Fred in nearly every aspect, but episodes featuring him and his running mate “Rollo Lawson” (played by Nathaniel Taylor) showcased the pair in several zany situations. There were several other recurring characters in the show, with Sanford reaching back to his comedian days to recruit actors, such as Pat Morita of “The Karate Kid” fame for the show.
The show was a smash success, and it remained in the Top 10 for ratings during its short six-year run. Given that America was still reeling from the tension felt after the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement, the Sanford character was bold in that it featured a Black man with obvious prejudices against others – not unlike Archie Bunker. The contrast was telling and while it was mostly slapstick humor, there were hints of seriousness at times on the program.
Always loyal to his wife Elizabeth, Sanford would often fake a heart attack that he dubbed “the big one” whenever he was either in a jam or under duress. Sometimes the gag was overused but like many things with the program, it came to be an expected occurrence.
The show was cancelled in 1977 but not because of ratings.
Foxx was embroiled with a contract dispute with NBC over salary. Foxx temporarily left the show, but was forced to return as a result of a lawsuit brought by the network. The network tried spinoffs and gave Foxx other vehicles to work but nothing quite caught on like “Sanford and Son.”
Comedians have gone on to have their own successful shows, such as Flip Wilson and Martin Lawrence, who was much later. Black sitcoms, however, owe its greatest debt to “Sanford And Son.” Without the show and its cultural impact, African Americans in Hollywood would have had an even tougher climb. While it was true that the humor of the program was sometimes rote, what cannot be disputed is that the show was important to convey a slice of African-American life at a time when our representations were so few.
Trivia: Did you know that Sanford and Son was a remark of a British show called Steptoe and Son