LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Demond Wilson learned that Redd Foxx was going to star in a TV sitcom, the actor called it a joke.
Foxx was a killer comic, with a trademark twist that Wilson thought was a non-starter for the timid broadcast networks that were television in 1972. It was the day before cable and the rise of streaming was decades away.
“It would be like bringing a dog to a cat party,” is how Wilson described the notion of Foxx invading television in a recent Associated Press interview.
But the comedian cleaned up his number for the small screen, and “Sanford and Son,” starring Wilson as Foxx’s beleaguered adult son, debuted 50 this month on NBC. An instant ratings smash, it opened the door for other black family shows to move into the virtually all-white TV district.
Norman Lear, who stirred network waters the previous year with the CBS themed sitcom “All in the Family,” said serendipity led to “Sanford and Son.” Lear and Bud Yorkin, his producing partner, were in Las Vegas when they attended a lounge number featuring Foxx.
“We met him and came back to LA really high” about creating a Foxx-centric sitcom, Lear said in an email exchange. “Miraculously, a few days later, a British agent, Beryl (Vertue) came to us with the idea of doing an American version of a big hit in Britain called ‘Steptoe and Son’.
“It was an instant marriage,” Lear said, and he says Foxx couldn’t resist.
“It’s not that he wasn’t hard to deal with, but he was funny as hell and that made everything possible,” Lear said. Foxx, who died in 1991 at age 68, skipped part of a season amid a contract dispute with producers.
“Sanford and Son,” which aired from 1972 to 1977, revolved around widower Fred Sanford, an irascible second-hand dealer in the Watts area of Los Angeles who imposed labor and insults on his long-suffering son, Lamont. . Among them: “You big dummy!” which became a catchphrase of the show.
Wilson, a Vietnam veteran who had appeared on stage in New York, in films and on television, was approached about the series after a guest role on “All in the Family”. Wilson also learned that the producers had another possibility in mind to play Lamont.
“‘We’re considering Richard Pryor,'” Wilson recalled. “I said, ‘Come on, you can’t put a comedian with a comedian. You must have a straight man. Dick Martin was the nut, Dan Rowan was the straight guy” on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” he said.
Wilson recounted joining Lear in Las Vegas to meet Foxx and watch his act: “I thought he was the funniest person, the most irreverently funny guy I had ever met in my life,” he said. -he declares.
“Sanford and Son” introduced viewers to other talented actors and comics typically shunned by Hollywood because of their race, including cast members LaWanda Page as Aunt Esther; Whitman Mayo as Grady Wilson; Don Bexley as Bubba and Lynn Hamilton as Foxx’s girlfriend Donna.
Slappy White, who had worked on the comedy circuit with Foxx, appeared occasionally on the show, as did Pat Morita, from the future movie “The Karate Kid,” whose character name, Ah Chew, and ethnicity were punchlines for Fred.
While “Sanford and Son” routinely delivered such racial barbs, it rarely addressed the racism or other third-rail issues — politics and abortion among them — that were at the heart of “All in the Family” and her spin-off “Maude”.
“Yeah. We didn’t compare (‘All in the Family’ and ‘Sanford and Son’), but the characters called it what they saw in their own neighborhood,” Lear said in an email. mail.
The show spawned other sitcoms about working-class black families, including “Good Times”, also involving Lear and featuring Esther Rolle and John Amos, and the less successful “What’s Happening!!” of Yorkin, who died in 2015. (The Jeffersons of Lear were rare to feature a wealthy black couple.)
While black viewers eventually got to see a version of themselves on screen, it was mostly a version limited to those in troubled neighborhoods and created by almost uniformly white producers, writers, and directors at the demand for white frames.
This stands in stark contrast to 21st century comedies created and directed by black writers, producers and actors, including ABC’s “Black-ish,” HBO’s “Insecure” and FX’s “Atlanta,” and their varied and nuanced take on things. of black life. .
Eric Deggans, television critic for National Public Radio, sees a “double-edged quality” in older generation sitcoms. They featured artists beloved by black audiences and, starting with “Sanford and Son,” proved that a series about a family of color could be hugely successful.
The comedies have also been honest in depicting some real black challenges, Deggans said. But they ultimately leaned on racial stereotypes and just laughed it off.
The shows made poor areas “liveable and even fun, as opposed to the problems they were really dealing with,” Deggans said.
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