Forty-one years ago this Monday, a television program debuted that immediately became one of the popular and influential shows in U.S. history.
It told the melancholic, but warm, tale of a crotchety, elderly, widowed black junk-dealer in the Los Angeles ghetto and his bored, restless adult son who reluctantly still lives at home and helps his father with the struggling business.
"Sanford and Son" struck a chord in the American public during a period of dramatic changes in society – the civil rights movement finally allowed black entertainers into the mainstream, the Vietnam War was still raging, campuses were convulsing, and youth rebellion manifested itself in rampant drug use and promiscuous sex.
On the surface, "Sanford and Son" had a very simple premise: The old man, Fred G. Sanford, played by Redd Foxx, was desperate to keep his son Lamont (Demond Wilson) at home with him no matter the cost. From this elemental foundation, hilarious comedy arose.
The show was developed by producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, the duo that created the groundbreaking “All in the Family” series that made white bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) a household name just one year prior.
But "Sanford and Son" had little similarity with "All in the Family" -- "Sanford" did not overtly discuss political issues, aside from Fred’s frequent complaints of racism (real or imagined) and put-downs of other ethnic groups (whites, Asians, Hispanics) or gays and women.
Of course, Fred and Archie shared many qualities – both men were solidly working class and uneducated, served in World War II, loved their families, resented the refined, upper-classes, possessed a lot of common sense, remained trapped in the past, grew fearful of a bewilderingly changing society and generally resigned themselves to their modest lot in life. In addition, both Archie in Queens and Fred in Watts masqueraded their warmth and sensitivity with a gruff, seemingly impenetrable exterior.
Their real-life counterparts, Foxx and O’Connor, quickly became famous and wealthy beyond their wildest dreams and even made TV stars pop culture icons equal to movie actors, politicians, superstar athletes and musicians.
Indeed, the two programs, on separate networks, dominated the ratings for much of the 1970s – and have remained wildly popular in reruns four decades after their respective debuts.
Fred Sanford’s frequent fake heart attacks (a ploy designed to gain sympathy whereby he clutches his heart and shouts out to his dear, departed wife Elizabeth: “I’m comin’ to join ya, honey!”); his put-downs of his son Lamont (“You big dummy!); and his hilarious verbal exchanges with his homely sister-in-law, the redoubtable Aunt Esther, have all become cherished parts of American pop culture lexicon.
"Sanford and Son" lasted six seasons – but despite its huge popularity, it was anything but a smooth journey. Largely due to Foxx’s persistent demands for more money, better amenities and what he termed “respect,” the set was constantly beset by turmoil, culminating in a highly publicized walk-out that almost ended the program. For the most part NBC executives acceded to Foxx’s diva-like demands (they had little choice since the show was a cash cow for the network), but ultimately they could tolerate no more, leading to the show’s declining ratings and inevitable cancelation.
However, perhaps "Sanford and Son" should not be compared with "All in the Family" – indeed, Fred and Lamont Sanford’s misadventures were directly based on a British sitcom from the 1960s and early 1970s called "Steptoe and Son."
"Steptoe and Son," which debuted in 1962, caused an immediate sensation in Britain, drawing huge ratings and a passionate national fan base.
Created by the team of writer-producers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, "Steptoe and Son" centered around the wretched lives of Albert Steptoe, an elderly rag and bone man (i.e., junk dealer) and his long-suffering adult son, Harold.
The Steptoes eked out a meager existence on fictional Oil Drum Lane in London’s impoverished Shepherd’s Bush district. They employed a horse named Hercules (that also became a British pop culture icon).
Widower Albert Steptoe, portrayed by Wilfrid Brambell, would stop at nothing to prevent his ambitious son, played by Harry H. Corbett, from ever leaving him or improving himself.
"Steptoe and Son" was as big as The Beatles in the 1960s – at the show’s peak, it routinely attracted a TV audience of some 25-million viewers, more than one-half of the country’s total population at the time. To put that in perspective, an American program would have to generate viewership on the order of some 140-million (i.e., like a staging a Super Bowl every week).
Having watched most episodes of both "Sanford and Son" and "Steptoe and Son," I can safely attest that the earlier British version was a far superior show. Wildly funny at times, "Steptoe and Son" was not really a comedy, per se – indeed, it depicted the sad lives of two lonely, isolated people trapped at the very bottom of society, with no hope of ever escaping.
The Steptoes’ poverty was far more pronounced than that of the Sanfords. Albert Steptoe seemed to have few or no friends whatsoever and remained perfectly content in his miserable hovel. While Harold harbored (unrealistic) dreams for a better life, he was doomed to be at his father’s side.
It is important to remember that both Brambell and Corbett were each highly accomplished dramatic actors, not comics. As well-trained thespians, they imbued the characters of Albert and Harold with some measure of depth and complexity (within the limitations of the sitcom format).
In contrast, Redd Foxx was no actor, rather he was a stand-up comic – Fred Sanford was essentially a cleaned-up, watered-down version of Foxx’s X-rated stage persona.
Consequently, "Sanford and Son" focused squarely on comedy and laughs – at the expense of pathos.
"Sanford and Son" best years were the first two – not coincidentally, most of the scripts from these seasons were based on "Steptoe and Son" teleplays, adjusted and modified by necessity.
Afterwards, "Sanford and Son" seemed to become a forum for Foxx’s trademark insult humor -- plots, characterization and dramatic elements were minimized or eliminated entirely.
By the third or fourth season, the fundamental premise of "Sanford and Son" was completely undermined -- Lamont no longer wished to escape his grasping father and the claustrophobic lifestyle at the junkyard. To the contrary, Lamont seemed more devoted to his father and the business. Most episodes featured plots that were resolved in half an hour.
In stark contrast, nothing was ever resolved for the warring "Steptoe and Son" -- for 12 long years, Albert remained intransigently cruel and unpleasant, while Harold’s desperate wish to leave his oppressive father never wavered.
"Steptoe and Son" was never syndicated in the U.S., which makes sense. The dense, literate scripts, the heavy accents and the lack of loveable, empathetic lead characters would have likely alienated the American audience.
But "Steptoe and Son" represented highly sophisticated comedy – I would go so far as to describe Galton and Simpson as geniuses. Indeed, "Steptoe and Son" rarely relied on physical comedy or pratfalls – even conventional jokes and punch-lines were largely avoided. The humor on the program (which was almost always accompanied by overwhelmingly melancholia) arose naturally from the realistic conflicts between Albert and Harold.
It would be fascinating if Redd Foxx ever met his British doppleganger, Wilfrid Brambell. I can find no evidence that such a momentous meeting ever occurred.
On the surface, one could not identity two more different figures than Foxx and Brambell.
Brambell, in stark contrast to his Albert Steptoe persona, was a highly educated, refined, cultured, elegant and even aristocratic dramatic actor of Irish descent.
Foxx, on the other hand, grew up in dire poverty in a segregated America, struggling for decades on the dreary fringes of the entertainment industry, including third-rate nightclubs, dangerous venues on the black "chitlin’ circuit," etc.
Whereas Brambell was homosexual, Foxx was ravenously heterosexual, fond of gambling, drinking and endless partying.
However, on a deeper level, the two men shared some fundamental similarities – indeed, they were both deeply troubled souls.
As a homosexual, Brambell was a criminal under British laws for much of his life, vulnerable not only to arrest, but also to blackmail and public humiliation. In fact, in 1962, just after "Steptoe and Son" debuted, he was arrested for “persistent importuning” in a London lavatory (i.e., soliciting for sex from strange men). Luckily he escaped with only a fine (following a pattern for many prominent British gays in those days prior to the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967).
Brambell also suffered from alcoholism and died utterly friendless in 1985. (British media recently revealed that Brambell sexually abused two underage boys on the isle of Jersey during the 1970s at the height of his fame).
As for Redd Foxx, he never got over his bleak childhood and what he felt amounted to his parents’ abandonment of him. Embittered by the racism he encountered throughout his life and career, the funny man was described by many as a deeply unhappy fellow, with despair that no amount of fame and wealth could alleviate.
Foxx was also addicted to cocaine – legend has it that he even snorted the drug openly on the set of "Sanford and Son," even dragging his co-star Demond Wilson into the prison of addiction.
Making things worse, Foxx was a poor money manager – despite earning millions from TV and Las Vegas stand-up, he died broke and deeply in debt to the IRS. He even had to endure the public indignity of IRS agents removing articles from his Las Vegas home – all in front of intrusive TV cameras.
Redd Foxx died in 1991 on the set of a CBS sitcom called "The Royal Family." In a bizarre touch, Foxx clutched his heart complaining of chest pains (just like his fictional alter ego Fred Sanford used to do). But this time the heart attack was real and he perished in the hospital.
Foxx’s funeral in Las Vegas – open to the public – turned into a media circus, with fans pestering celebrities for autographs and the like. Demond Wilson didn’t bother to attend.
Like Brambell, Foxx, who provided wonderful entertainment to untold millions, died a broken man.