Aesthetically Speaking

Sanford Son marathon a lesson in Black culture

The two-day "Sanford & Son" marathon on the TV Land network (Time Warner Cable – Ch. 43, Jan 4 -5) wasn't just a long string of back-to-back reruns. The two-day "Sanford & Son" marathon on the TV Land network (Time Warner Cable – Ch. 43, Jan 4 -5) wasn't just a long string of back-to-back reruns. It was a comprehensive history lesson in African American culture the viewing of which — hopefully — some academic instructor had the sense to assign as course work.

The series (1972 – 1977 on NBC) is thoroughly archived by the Museum of Broadcast Communications for a good reason. A forerunner of today's Black sitcom hits, it was the first show to star a Black cast after the "Amos 'n' Andy Show" was canceled in 1953. Regrettably, like its predecessor, "Sanford & Son" was unjustly slammed for supposedly depicting African Americans in the light of a negative stereotype. Fortunately, though, it was so successful complaints ultimately fell on deaf ears. The worst that realistically can be said of "Sanford & Son" is that producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, who licensed the format of "Steptoe & Son" (BBC) featuring the shenanigans of a cockney junk dealer, should've provided same ingenious scripting they did for the CBS series "All In The Family", their career-making adaptation of another BBC hit, "Til Death Do Us Part". "Sanford and Son" chronicled the misadventures of shiftless, crotchety widower Fred Sanford and his desperately ambitious son, Lamont, who yearned to leave junk-dealing behind but, in his eagerness, lacked the common sense by which to devise effective methods. These characters, as well as Fred's arch antagonist, the Bible-thumping Aunt Esther, and his plodding sidekick Grady, were recognizably drawn straight from real life. Which is why, despite naysayers, the program had national viewers avidly hunkered down on Friday night, eyes glued to the tube.

Foxx, who starred as grump-butt Fred, laid the ground on which today's stand-up and sitcom stars walk. Foxx directly influenced Richard Pryor who, in turn, was practically cloned on Eddie Murphy's first album. He also saw to it that, through Sanford and Son, fellow performers who had worked on the same chitlin' circuit which got him started received national exposure — and good paychecks — as regulars on the show: veterans like La Wanda Page (Esther), Slappy White (Fred's buddy Melvin) and Don Bexley (Bubba). Foxx gave unknown model/actor Demond Wilson a career-making break, letting the young man play straight-man as Lamont to the cut-up Foxx's hilarious antics as Fred. In addition, the warmhearted, word-mangling Grady was played by gifted stage actor and founding member of NYC's New Lafayette Theatre Whitman Mayo. This wasn't just a television show. And it sure wasn't anything to be ashamed of. "Sanford and Son" made television history.

Just so you know, Foxx didn't back into success. He earned his place in the annals of comic lore, starting in the late 1930s, performing on street corners. He slugged it out in a segregated America for some 40 years before Yorkin and Lear signed him to do "Sanford and Son". Against strong odds, by the time he was tapped to do the series, Foxx had become a household name in Black neighborhoods clear across the country, famous since the 1950s for his racy nightclub routines and bawdy albums. By the 1960s he was headlining in Las Vegas. In 1969, he played Uncle Bud, an aging junk dealer in the motion picture adaptation of Chester Himes' novel Cotton Comes to Harlem. That's when Yorkin and Lear came calling.

It was fitting testament to Foxx's historic importance that in 1989, long after Sanford and Son, when Foxx's career had badly slumped, director-star Eddie Murphy cast him in Harlem Nights. It was also very smart. Between Murphy, Pryor, Foxx and Della Reese this beautifully crafte

January 13, 2003
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