Based on the British series Steptoe and Son, Sanford and Son starred veteran comic Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford, a frequently-scheming junk dealer, and Demond Wilson as Lamont Sanford, his son and co-worker, and the family peacemaker. Here are some facts about the seminal series to read before “The Big One” strikes.
1. CLEAVON LITTLE WAS THE ONE WHO SUGGESTED REDD FOXX AS THE LEAD.
Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles) was approached to work on the project, but had to say no because of prior commitments. He suggested Redd Foxx, his co-star in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). In the film, Foxx played a junk dealer.
2. DEMOND WILSON DIDN’T THINK THE SHOW WOULD LAST VERY LONG WHEN HE SIGNED UP.
Demond Wilson caught the attention of executive producer Bud Yorkin during a guest appearance on All in the Family in 1971, where he played a burglar who broke into Archie Bunker’s house. “I thought about it long and hard and decided to take a chance,” Wilson later said of saying yes to Sanford and Son. “Redd and I thought we could grab some quick cash, plus notoriety, then move onto the next project.”
3. CBS PASSED ON THE SHOW AND REGRETTED IT FOR YEARS.
Wilson and Foxx first met each other in Las Vegas, where Foxx was doing stand-up. Four days after their first reading together, they performed in front of the All in the Family cast, where a visiting NBC vice president witnessed the future and ordered a pilot. Yorkin claimed he was unable to get any CBS officials to watch Foxx and Wilson’s rehearsals. “It was one of the stupidest things I did at CBS,” the network’s then-president Fred Silverman admitted. “We had All in the Family on the air and Bud and Norman [Lear] came in with the idea, and it was called Steptoe and Son. They failed to mention that Redd Foxx was on it, or that it was going to be a black show. They never said that. And they just described it and I said, ‘Well, I don’t understand, you are selling us a show we already have. I mean, we have All in the Family and this sounds like Archie and Meathead.”
4. QUINCY JONES COMPOSED THE THEME SONG.
Quincy Jones was skeptical of Sanford and Son, because he had worked with Foxx decades earlier in shows, and recalled not one word out of the comedian’s mouth being appropriate for NBC. “I just wrote what he looked like,” Jones said about his composition “The Streetbeater,” the series’ theme song. “It sounds just like him, doesn’t it?”
5. FOXX WORE MAKEUP TO LOOK OLDER.
Foxx, who was nicknamed “Chicago Red” because of his hair color, was only 49 years old when the series began; Fred Sanford was 65. He complained that a lot of people assumed he was Fred’s age.
6. THE HEAVY SHOES WERE WHAT TRANSFORMED REDD INTO FRED.
“Just as soon as I put those big heavy shoes on and walk out there, I become Sanford—but not until then, not until I put my shoes on,” Foxx said. “I can put the rest of the outfit on, but if I don’t have those shoes on, I don’t walk like him, and I don’t think like him.”
7. FRED SANFORD WAS NAMED AFTER REDD’S BROTHER.
It was the comedian’s tribute to his brother, who had died five years before the show premiered. Lamont Sanford was named after Lamont Ousley, one of the two other teenagers who made up the washtub band Foxx formed when he dropped out of high school after just one year. The character Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo) was named after Demond Wilson, whose full name is Grady Demond Wilson.
8. FOXX BASED THE HEART ATTACKS ON HIS MOTHER.
“Fred Sanford is Mary Sanford, who is my mother, but you can reverse personalities into male or female,” Foxx told Sammy Davis Jr. on Sammy and Company. “My mother would do the same thing … she would have heart attacks when I was a kid, I remember. When she wanted something done she could hardly breathe—she had emphysema, she had cancer, she had lumbago, she had a whooping cough.”
9. LAWANDA PAGE WOULD HAVE BEEN FIRED IF IT WASN’T FOR FOXX.
LaWanda Page was the only actress Foxx wanted to play Fred’s sister-in-law, Esther. Page was too nervous to give audition producers liked, but Foxx insisted. “They were going to let me go,” Page told Jet magazine in 1977, “but Redd said, ‘No, you ain’t gonna let her go. That’s LaWanda and I know she can do it! Just give me some time with her.’”
10. RICHARD PRYOR AND PAUL MOONEY CO-WROTE TWO EPISODES.
The legendary comedians co-wrote two episodes of Sanford and Son together during the show’s second season, “The Dowry” and “Sanford and Son and Sister Makes Three.”
11. FRED SANG ALONG TO THE INK SPOTS BECAUSE FOXX WAS A HUGE FAN.
Foxx was initially an aspiring singer.
12. FOXX WALKED OFF THE SHOW DURING SEASON THREE.
For the final six episodes of the third season, Grady was put in charge of the business while Fred Sanford was in St. Louis attending his cousin’s funeral because Foxx had walked off the show. Foxx and his physician claimed the actor was suffering from “nervous exhaustion, claustrophobia, and calcification between the fifth and sixth vertebrae in his back” thanks to the show, and his marriage of 17 years was falling apart because of his busy schedule. NBC and Tandem Productions claimed Foxx “appeared at the studio flaunting a pearl-handled revolver” and had already received a salary bump up to $25,000 an episode, from his initial $6000. Tandem Productions sued Foxx and Wilson—who had joined Foxx at the start of season four out of solidarity—for $10 million, claiming breach of contract.
13. THERE were A FAILED SPINOFF AND TWO FAILED REVIVALS.
Before Sanford and Son ended its run, Grady moved out of Watts and in with his daughter in Westwood in Grady (1975-1976), a spinoff that lasted just 10 episodes.
After Sanford and Son ended 1977, NBC tried to keep the party going without Foxx, who left to do a variety show on ABC, and Wilson, who refused to keep the show going due to a salary dispute. In Sanford Arms, Phil Wheeler (Theodore Wilson) moved into Fred and Lamont’s house after the two moved to Arizona. Phil and his two teenage children attempted to turn the rooming house next door into a successful hotel. Grady, Bubba (Don Bexley), and Esther also appeared. It lasted for four episodes.
Sanford(1980-1981) brought back Foxx, but Wilson again refused to reprise his role. The events of Sanford Arms were ignored, and this time Lamont left to work on the Alaska Pipeline. He was replaced in the business by Cal Pettie (Dennis Burkley), an optimistic Texan. NBC canceled it after 19 episodes, burning off the final seven over the summer of 1981.
14. THE SANFORD AND SON SALVAGE TRUCK WAS PURCHASED FOR $3500.
Foxx had kept the 1951 Ford F1 at his own Las Vegas home after the original series ended, returning it briefly to NBC for Sanford. At an auction, Bill Milks bought it, and Donald Dimmitt of Dimmitt’s Salvage in Argos, Indiana purchased it from Milks in 1987 for $3500.
15. WHEN FOXX SUFFERED A HEART ATTACK ON THE SET OF THE ROYAL FAMILY, HIS CO-STARS THOUGHT HE WAS DOING THE BIT FROM SANFORD AND SON.
Foxx collapsed on October 11, 1991, during rehearsals for his new sitcom, The Royal Family. “They were rehearsing on the set and clowning around, and Redd was sort of breaking people up when he collapsed,” a spokeswoman for the show told The Los Angeles Times. “They all thought he was joking around at first, and then they called the paramedics.”