50 Years Ago: ‘Sanford and Son’ Makes Its Groundbreaking Debut

When Sanford and Son premiered on NBC on Jan. 14, 1972, few shows on U.S. television had ever featured Black characters.

On June 14, 1939, actress and singer Ethel Waters headlined a variety program called The Ethel Waters Show and may have been the first Black American to appear on television. In 1956, Nat King Cole hosted a short-lived but nationally televised variety show. And in the ’60s both Cicely Tyson and Bill Cosby starred in hour-long dramas, working alongside white co-stars.

But there had been virtually no comedic television centered on Black characters since The Amos and Andy Show in the early ’50s, which was based on a radio program in which white performers had done racist impersonations of Black characters and was roundly criticized for its derogating presentations of Black life.

Watch ‘Sanford and Son’ Intro

1972 – Sanford and Son – Intro

The lack of Black shows didn’t dissuade famed TV producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, who were already challenging U.S. viewers with their notoriously confrontational series All in the Family. The pair decided to adapt a British sitcom called Steptoe and Son – the same approach they had taken with All in the Family, which was based on a British show called ‘Till Death Us Do Part – and to set it in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was a daring move, typical of Lear and Yorkin, because to national audiences Watts was then best known as the location of the so-called “Watts Rebellion” of 1965 in which the arrest of a Black motorist by white cops kicked off a series of destructive protests.

Lear and Yorkin’s provocations didn’t stop there, however. In the main comedic role of their new show, they cast comedian Redd Foxx, whom The New York Times called “the dean of X-rated comedians” and who had recorded more than 50 “party records” –essentially stand-up comedy records – during the ’50s and ’60s. Lear and Yorkin took Foxx’s last name (he was born John Sanford) for the name of the show and named his character Fred Sanford after his older brother.

Sanford and Son centered on Fred’s junk shop at 9114 South Central Ave. in Watts, where he lived with his son Lamont (Demond Wilson). The relationship between the two closely mirrored that of Archie Bunker and his son-in-law, Mike, on All in the Family: Fred was cantankerous, annoyed by almost everyone he met and cheap. Lamont was open-minded, gentle and a genuinely good person.

A good deal of the humor in the show came from the clash between these two personalities and from the different ways they dealt with the other recurring characters, from deeply religious Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page) – who was Fred’s deceased wife Elizabeth’s sister – to Fred’s best friend Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo) and Lamont’s best friend Rollo Larson (Nathaniel Taylor). Fred insulted them and was suspicious of nearly everything they did (his character was nearly as acerbic as Foxx’s stand-up comedy), while Lamont took them at face value and wanted to see past the issues – particularly racial and cultural issues – that Fred was always highlighting.

Watch ‘Sanford and Son’ Scenes

This foregrounding of race was radical for network television at the time, and Fred wasn’t always portrayed in a positive light. He was full of slurs about other races, including their Puerto Rican neighbor Julio Fuentes (Gregory Sierra) and Lamont’s Japanese-American friend Ah Chew (Pat Morita); these aspersions were always balanced by intelligent and humorous protests from Lamont. But the show also refused to steer away from the issues facing Black Americans at the time, such as a famous episode when Fred defended Lamont in traffic court, asking the cop, “What have you got against Black drivers?”

Beyond this treatment of race in the show, there were also the in-front-of and behind-the-camera barriers the program broke. It was the first network comedy after The Amos and Andy Show to feature a predominantly Black cast; its theme music was also composed by a Black artist, Quincy Jones. After Foxx and others complained about diversity in other areas of the show’s production during the first season, changes were made there as well. Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney were hired to help write, and groundbreaking Black director Stan Lathan was brought in to direct, getting his start in Hollywood.

Watch ‘Sanford and Son’ Scene

The biggest myth the show helped destroy was that audiences wouldn’t respond to shows featuring minority characters. Sanford and Son averaged 16 million viewers per episode during its first season and was in the Top 10 television shows in the U.S. every year of its six-year run. It was so successful that before it ended in 1977, the program had inspired at least three knockoff shows – Good Times (1974), The Jeffersons (1975) and What’s Happening (1976) – and changed the way U.S. viewers thought about television.

But the most lasting quality of Sanford and Son? It managed to be both funny and touching in a way few shows could.

Watch ‘Sanford and Son’ Scene

Sanford & Son (A classic and also my favorite scene)

Foxx and Wilson were both terrifically talented comedic actors who shared wonderful on-screen chemistry. In a 2001 biography of Foxx, TV editor Michael Starr quoted Yorkin as remembering the first time the two leads rehearsed: “Redd and Demond walked in front of the cameras and did their scene together. It had been only four days since they’d met for the first time at Redd’s house in Las Vegas. The All in the Family cast fell on the floor. … I have never heard guys laughing like that. It went on and on.”

For all the groundbreaking elements of Sanford and Son, it was this humane comedy that probably had the biggest impact.

28 Classic Films That Were Turned Into (Mostly Failed) TV Shows

Many classic ’70s and ’80s flicks have spawned TV series – but few have found success. 

Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin’Fast Times at Ridgemont High’


‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’

Looking to capitalize on the popularity of the 1982 film ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ CBS brought the series ‘Fast Times’ to television in 1986. The show struggled under the weight of its predecessor’s success, and seemed unsure creatively if it wanted to be a sequel to the movie or its own unique piece. Most of the characters remained the same, though only two actors – Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli – reprised their roles for the show (as Mr. Hand and Mr. Vargas, respectively). What’s more, the comedy of the original – which included sex and drug use – was absent in the TV show. The result was a largely forgettable sitcom which disappeared after just seven episodes.’Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’


‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’

The exploits of Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan inspired two different TV shows. The first, an animated series, arrived just one year after the original 1989 film. Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and George Carlin all voiced their respective parts for the first season of the show, but were replaced in season two by Evan Richards, Christopher Kennedy and Rick Overton. Less familiar with those names? They were the stars of ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures,’ a live action series which debuted in 1992. Like the original film, ‘Excellent Adventures’ saw the Wild Stallions travelling through time and interacting with some of history’s most notable figures (Elvis and Albert Einstein among them). Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. Only seven episodes aired before cancellation.’Animal House’


‘Animal House’

Looking to recreate the huge success they had with 1978’s ‘Animal House,’ producers created the TV series ‘Delta House’ in 1979. Several of the film’s cast reprised their roles, including John Vernon (Dean Wormer), Stephen Furst (Flounder), Bruce McGill (D-Day), and James Widdoes (Hoover). Without John Belushi as John “Bluto” Blutarsky, the show created Jim “Blotto” Blutarsky, Bluto’s brother, who was in many ways the carbon copy of his sibling. Ivan Reitman executive produced the series, while John Hughes served as one of its writers. Despite this collection of talent, ‘Delta House’ was unable to rekindle the magic of its predecessor. Much of the blame could be laid with the FCC, as strict censorship rules meant the series couldn’t use the raunchy style of comedy that made ‘Animal House’ great. ‘Delta House’ lasted just one forgettable season, though it is notable for introducing audiences to Michelle Pfeiffer. The actress appeared in every episode, stealing scenes in her role as “The Bombshell.”’The Karate Kid’


‘The Karate Kid’

Looking to capitalize on the huge popularity of the film ‘The Karate Kid,’ DIC Enterprises, Saban Entertainment and Columbia Pictures Television brought ‘The Karate Kid’ animated series to TV in 1989. While the characters of Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi returned for the show, the actors who played them did not (though Pat Morita did provide narration at the beginning of each episode). Whereas the film followed LaRusso’s teenage battles against bullies and the Cobra Kai dojo, the cartoon series saw Miyagi and Daniel-san travelling to exotic locales in the quest to retrieve an ancient shrine which was stolen from its home in Japan. The TV show lasted only one season before being canceled. More recently, the Netflix series ‘Cobra Kai’ has found success with original ‘Karate Kid’ actors Macchio and William Zabka returning to the roles they payed as teens.’Uncle Buck’


‘Uncle Buck’

Thanks largely to the writing/directing talents of John Hughes and the comedic genius of John Candy, the film ‘Uncle Buck’ was a blockbuster hit in 1989. The story of the lazy, slobbish Buck who suddenly finds himself taking care of his brother’s children when the parents have to quickly get out of town, offered equal parts hilarity and charm. Neither were evident in the short-lived ‘Uncle Buck’ series, which arrived on CBS in 1990. The show’s plot differed slightly from the original – the cigar smoking, horse race gambling Buck became caretaker for three kids after their parents died in a car accident. Without the endearing qualities of the original, ‘Uncle Buck’ sunk like a stone. The series was moved around the schedule and eventually canceled after airing 16 episodes. A second TV adaptation, this time with an African-American family, arrived in 2016, but suffered a similar fate.’Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’


‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’

Well, at least they tried to be different. Rather than serving as a sequel to its famous predecessor or pretending that it never existed, the ‘Ferris Bueller’ TV show made the bold decision to address the issue in its opening scene. Charlie Schlatter, playing the titular teen, looked at the camera and explained that the film – starring Matthew Broderick – was actually a fictitious retelling of his own real life. To punctuate his claim, the “real” Ferris cut a cardboard cutout of Broderick in half using a chainsaw. Audiences didn’t buy it. ‘Ferris Bueller’ was a failure from day one, despite having future star Jennifer Aniston in its cast. After one season and 13 episodes, the series was canceled.’Stir Crazy’


‘Stir Crazy’

With Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in its lead roles, the 1980 film ‘Stir Crazy’ boasted two of comedy’s most iconic talents. ‘Stir Crazy’ the series… did not. Both projects featured two wrongly convicted men who escaped prison and worked to track down the real criminals, but that’s where the similarities ended. None of the people involved in the film – which was the third highest grossing of 1980 – had anything to do with the series. Different characters and a severe lack of comedy also doomed the show, which debuted in September of 1985 and was pulled just a month later.’Indiana Jones’


‘Indiana Jones’

Look! One of the few TV shows on this list that wasn’t an abject failure! Rather than trying to find someone to fill Harrison Ford’s shoes as Indiana Jones, producers of ‘The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles’ sought to tell the early life of the famous archaeologist. As such, episodes featured Indiana at various ages, including childhood, teen and young adult years. With George Lucas executive producing, the project also had plenty of creative and financial force. Thus, scenes set in the early 1900s and distant foreign countries actually looked the part, a rarity on television at the time. Indiana’s many adventures included interaction with some of history’s most notable names, including Theodore Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Leo Tolstoy, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, George Patton, Al Capone and Pablo Picasso. Despite critical acclaim and positive word of mouth, ‘The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles’ struggled in the ratings. After two seasons, the series was canceled, though a handful of made for TV movies would follow. The series won 10 Emmys during its brief run.’Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’


‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’

After Disney’s 1989 film ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’ became an unexpected box office mega-hit – it earned $222 million against an $18 million budget – the studio seeked to continue reaping profits off the title. Two movie sequels were made, while ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!’ attractions appeared at Disneyland and Disney World. Eventually, they turned to television, launching ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show’ in 1997. Peter Scolari took over the role of eccentric inventor Wayne Szalinski, played by Rick Moranis in the original film. Generally, each episode saw Szalinski and his family caught up in wild hijinx as a result of one of his wacky inventions. It was typical, mindless family fun – but also offered little more than that. The syndicated series lasted three seasons, airing its final episode in 2000.’Ghostbusters’



With ‘Ghostbusters’ fever at its highest following the success of the 1984 original film, producers looked to capitalize on the brand’s popularity. ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ was an animated series that continued to track the spectre capturing escapades of Peter Venkman, Egon Spengler, Ray Stantz and Winston Zeddemore. While none of the original cast voiced their characters on the show, a couple of famous voices were heard – Arsenio Hall voiced Winston for three seasons, while Dave Coulier spent several years as the voice of Venkman. The series was a hit, lasting seven seasons and 140 episodes, while enjoying a run as one of America’s most popular Saturday morning cartoons.’RoboCop’



In addition to spawning three sequels, 1987’s ‘RoboCop’ also received multiple television adaptations. An animated show followed in 1988, with a ‘RoboCop’ live-action series arriving in 1994. Both of these vehicles offered more sanitized versions of cyberpunk hero, with less violence and gritty realism than the original film. The live-action series also struggled to mach the quality of special effects found in the feature films. Neither of these ‘RoboCop’ TV programs lasted more than one season. Another animated attempt arrived in 1998, but it suffered the same fate.’Private Benjamin’


‘Private Benjamin’

The 1981 TV series ‘Private Benjamin’ stuck very close to its predecessor, the 1980 film of the same name. The story of a spoiled socialite who joins the army proved ripe for plenty of comedy on both the big and small screen. While star Goldie Hawn – who earned an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Judy Benjamin – did not reprise her role in the series, Eileen Brennan, who also scored an Oscar nomination for her work in the film, did. The decision proved wise, as Brennan won an Emmy and Golden Globe Award for her work on the show. Despite the accolades, ‘Private Benjamin’ the series never developed much of a following. It survived three seasons before airing its final episode in 1983.’Serpico’



The rare drama to be turned into a TV show, ‘Serpico’ told the story of officer Frank Serpico and his efforts to rid the New York City police department of corruption. The film, based on real-life whistleblower Frank Serpico, starred Al Pacino, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his role. Four years after its release, the TV series ‘Serpico’ debuted on NBC. It looked to continue the story, with Serpico tangling with various criminals in each episode, while also working to expose corrupt cops. It lacked the raw, suspenseful elements of the film and was ultimately canceled after one season.’Beetlejuice’



After the huge success of Tim Burton’s 1988 film ‘Beetlejuice,’ an animated series was fast-tracked for ABC. Unlike the movie – which mixed dark elements with comedy – the series was a much lighter affair aimed at children. The teenage character of Lydia, an adversary of the titular ghost in the film, was his best friend on the show, with their adventures in the real and netherworld providing most of the episodes’ plots. Gone was the star power of the motion picture – which boasted a cast featuring Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara. Still, Burton served as the cartoon show’s executive producer and Danny Elfman provided the theme, giving the series just enough creative juice to last four seasons.’Conan the Barbarian’


‘Conan the Barbarian’

Remember that mid-’90s period where fantasy action adventure TV shows like ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’ and ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ found unexpected popularity? Well, where those shows succeeded, ‘Conan the Adventurer’ failed. The 1997 series, based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan movies of the ‘80s, saw the titular hero battling to save his homeland from an evil sorcerer and his army. Producers even looked to cast the “next Arnold” as Conan, hiring German bodybuilder Ralf Moeller in the lead role. Still, the result was a flop. After 22 episodes, the series’ plug was pulled.’M*A*S*H’



Undoubtedly the crowd jewel among our collection of mostly forgotten TV shows is ‘M*A*S*H.’ The film was one of the biggest hits of 1970, garnering five Academy Award nominations and eventually being enshrined by the Library of Congress. Amazingly, the TV show was even more decorated. Airing from 1972-1983, ‘M*A*S*H’ racked up more than 100 Emmy nominations, with star Alan Alda taking home 5 of the awards for his work on the show (acting, writing and directing). The series ranks as one of the greatest TV shows to ever hit the airwaves, and its final episode – 1983’s “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” – remains the most watched broadcast in episodic television history. Less acclaimed though successful in their own right were two further ‘M*A*S*H’ TV spinoffs. ‘AfterMASH’ ran from 1983 to ‘85 and followed the lives of three characters – Colonel Sherman T. Potter, Maxwell Klinger and Father John Mulcahy – following the conclusion of the Korean War. ‘Trapper John, M.D.’ ran for seven season from 1979 to 1986 and chronicled the titular character, Dr. “Trapper” John McIntyre, in his new role as Chief of Surgery at San Francisco Memorial Hospital following his stint in the Army.’Working Girl’


‘Working Girl’

Melanie Griffith’s career was already on the rise when the 1988 film ‘Working Girl’ took it to a new level. Her portrayal of Tess McGill, a young woman determined to succeed at both business and romance, earned the actress an Academy Award nomination. Similarly, the short-lived ‘Working Girl’ TV series was not Sandra Bullock’s first acting credit, but it did give the future star her first true taste of the spotlight. The workplace comedy aired on NBC in the spring of 1990. Twelve episodes were shot, though only eight made it to air.’Rambo: First Blood’


‘Rambo: First Blood’

Adapting the bloody story of a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD into an animated series was an interesting decision. Still, there’s no denying that John Rambo was one of the most popular action characters of the ‘80s following the success of ‘First Blood’ and ‘First Blood Part II.’ In the cartoon, which hit televisions in 1986, Rambo reenlists to be part of a special unit called the Force of Freedom. The team’s job was to defeat evil doers all over the world, generally leaving a trail of patriotism in their wake. In addition to capitalizing on the Rambo name, ‘Rambo: The Force of Freedom’ also looked to cash in on the similarly-minded G.I. Joe craze, even going so far as to create a line of toys similar to the popular Hasbro action figures.’Teen Wolf’


‘Teen Wolf’

In the 1985 flick ‘Teen Wolf,’ Michael J. Fox played the charming basketball playing teen turned werewolf Scott Howard. The character was fun and generally likeable, and certainly nothing like the brooding Scott McCall character who would appear in MTV’s ‘Teen Wolf’ more than two decades later. The 2011 series was really just a reboot in name, as the characters, storyline and temperament were all completely different than the original (except the fact that the main character is a teenage werewolf). MTV’s drama lasted six seasons, running from 2011 to 2017.’Parenthood’



The 1989 film ‘Parenthood’ boasted an impressive ensemble cast, including Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Rick Moranis, Keanu Reeves and Joaquin Phoenix. Amazingly, the 1990 TV adaptation rivaled that star power, with Ed Begley Jr., David Arquette, Thora Birch and a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio in its cast. However, unlike the successful film, the TV series never developed much of an audience. Despite positive reviews, the show was canceled after just 12 episodes. NBC once again revived ‘Parenthood’ in 2010, with Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard and Craig T. Nelson among the cast. The latter reboot – which skewed more towards drama than comedy – was more successful, running for six seasons. While the movie and 1990 series shared the same characters, the 2010 show was entirely new.’Weird Science’


‘Weird Science’

The mid-’90s were a unique time for basic cable television. While some stations depended on reruns and classic movies to fill their airwaves, others invested in low budget original programming, hoping that something might click with viewers. The latter was the case for ‘Weird Science,’ a sitcom on USA network based off the 1985 film of the same name. The series employed a similar premise to the original – namely, that two awkward teenage boys create the girl of their dreams on a computer, then accidentally bring her to life. Oingo Boingo’s song “Weird Science” served as the show’s theme, but that was as close to the film as the series got. Still, the program developed something of a cult following and became a mainstay in USA’s programming. It eventually lasted five seasons, with SyFy network later airing the final half-season in 1998.’Down and Out in Beverly Hills’


‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’

The TV series ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’ holds the distinction of being the first show ever canceled by Fox. The fledgling network launched in the fall of 1986 and soon announced the sitcom for its upcoming spring schedule. Based on the 1986 film of the same name – which starred Richard Dreyfus, Bette Midler and Nick Nolte – the series followed the same premise of a homeless man who moves in with a rich Beverly Hills family. Despite this strong pedigree, Fox quickly realized they had a dud on their hands. Only five of the 13 episodes that were produced actually made it to air.’Gung Ho’


‘Gung Ho’

The 1986 comedy ‘Gung Ho’ saw director Ron Howard teaming with actor Michael Keaton for the story of an American car manufacturing plant that gets taken over by a Japanese company. The film, which earned most of its laughs due to its characters’ clash of cultures, received mixed reviews, but a strong return at the box office. That success helped pave the way for the ‘Gung Ho’ TV sitcom later that year, with Scott Bakula replacing Keaton in the leading role. The actor had not yet achieved fame via ‘Quantum Leap’ (which arrived in ‘89), so his involvement offered little draw for the series. ABC pumped the brakes on ‘Gung Ho’ after just nine episodes.’Dirty Dancing’


‘Dirty Dancing’

Roughly one year after Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey lit up movie screens in the original ‘Dirty Dancing’ film, the series ‘Dirty Dancing’ made its television debut. Like its predecessor, the plot focussed on dance instructor Johnny Castle and his romance with Baby Houseman (last name changed to Kellerman in the series). While the stars weren’t the same, the characters, premise and dance moves all came along. Unfortunately, they arrived without any of the fun. The CBS series had strong ratings in its first episode, but they immediately started going downhill. By January of ‘89, the show was done. Only 10 episodes made it to air.’Foul Play’


‘Foul Play’

Chevy Chase made his cinematic leading man debut in 1978’s ‘Foul Play,’ showcasing charm and chemistry with co-star Goldie Hawn. As Lieutenant Tony Carlson, Chase protected Hawn’s Gloria Mundy, a librarian who suddenly found herself at the center of a plot to assassinate the pope. Three years later, ‘Foul Play’ would be turned into a TV show, however its plot was changed to follow the misadventures of a bumbling detective and his girlfriend. Ten episodes were shot, but only five made it to air, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the quality of the program.’Police Academy’


‘Police Academy’

Because seven ‘Police Academy’ films apparently wasn’t enough, producer Paul Maslansky attempted to bring the law enforcement hijinx to the small screen in 1997 with ‘Police Academy: The Series.’ The program featured many characters which were eerily similar to their cinematic counterparts, yet only one actor – human sound machine Michael Winslow – reprised his role, once again playing Larvell Jones. The show only lasted one season before being cancelled. It was preceded by an animated series in the late ‘80s which fared slightly better, surviving two seasons before getting the axe.’Harry and the Hendersons’


‘Harry and the Hendersons’

A mild-mannered comedy about a family who discovers and adopts bigfoot, ‘Harry and the Hendersons’ was a modest box office success in 1987. A sitcom of the same name would premiere four years later, taking the same basic premise and adapting it for the small screen. John Lithgow, who had starred in the original motion picture, was replaced by Bruce Davison in the series. Still, the film’s biggest star, the towering bigfoot Harry, transitioned well for TV audiences. The sitcom ran for three seasons spanning 72 episodes before going off the air in 1993.’Logan’s Run’


‘Logan’s Run’

While the 1976 sci-fi film ‘Logan’s Run’ offered a dystopian view of the future, its spin-off TV series failed to capture the same twisted perspective. Main characters were the same, with Logan 5, a former enforcement officer turned runner, determined to find sanctuary for he and his love interest, Jennifer 6. But where Michael York’s cinematic Logan was a daring hero, Gregory Harrison’s TV embodiment of the character was softer and far less bold. The series also suffered from low quality special effects, which couldn’t compete with its predecessor, or even its television competition ‘Star Trek.’ ‘Logan’s Run’ aired 14 episodes before being canceled in February of 1978.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button