Thursday, December 10, 2020

You Big Dummy!


John Elroy Sanford was born in St. Louis on December 9, 1922.  His father, Fred Sanford, left the family when John was just four years old.  He was raised by his mother Mary Hughes, who was half-Seminole, a contributing factor to Sanford's reddish complexion, a trait that he also shared with his older brother, Fred, Jr.  

Sanford was a born entertainer and was already performing during his teenage years.  He made his first appearance in 1939 on a national radio show called the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.

During the 1940s, he had yet to achieve star status and continued working in a variety of day-to-day jobs.  In one such position, he earned the nickname "Chicago Red" and was known as the funniest dishwasher on this Earth.  This moniker was given to him by his friend Malcolm Little, whom the world would remember as Malcolm X.

During this time, Sanford began setting his sights on becoming a professional comedian.  He crafted a nightclub routine that proved highly successful.  His act caught the eye of famed singer Dinah Washington during an East Coast performance.  She invited him to Los Angeles, where he began appearing at the Brass Rail nightclub.  While performing there, he was noticed by Dootsie Williams of Dootone Records, who signed him to his first professional contract.  Under the Dootone label, Sanford released a series of comedy albums that proved wildly successful.

By the 1970s, Sanford was an established comedian who had taken the stage name of Redd Foxx.  He had a few bit parts in movies, but was soon approached by NBC to appear in a new series based on a British sit-com called Steptoe and Son.  The American version, retitled Sanford and Son, saw Foxx as co-owner of a father and son junk business in Watts, California.  It premiered as a mid-season replacement in January 1972 and ran for six seasons on the network.  You can watch the iconic series intro here.

Foxx used the series as a means of providing work to a number of his fiends and colleagues, including Slappy White, Pat Morita, Donald Bexley, and most famously, LaWanda Page as feisty Aunt Esther.  He also employed friend Stymie Beard of Little Rascals fame, as Foxx was a lifelong fan of the Hal Roach series and had even incorporated it into his early act.

Contrary to popular belief, Sanford and Son was not canceled by NBC.  It folded in 1977 when Foxx left to star in his own variety series on rival network ABC.  Ironically that same year, Foxx appeared as a guest on the struggling ABC variety series The Brady Bunch Hour, in which he pimped his upcoming series.  You can watch that segment, as well as some really un-Brady stand-up comedy, here.

His departure from the series caused a rift with co-star Demond Wilson, who felt betrayed by the move.  Wilson stated that he had received no heads up regarding Foxx's new series, and only learned of Sanford and Son's cancellation while walking the halls at NBC.  As a result, Wilson declined to participate in the 1980 Sanford revival series.  Foxx fired back at Wilson while appearing as a guest on The Donny and Marie Show.  In a Star Wars-inspired segment, Foxx claimed to be an extra-terrestrial from Sanford, a planet that has no sun.

Throughout the 1980s, Foxx would continue to make guest appearances on television while starting new business ventures as well.  He opened a company in Hollywood called Redd Foxx's Car Velvetizing.  It specialized in adding a fuzzy velvet layer to vehicles with vinyl tops, helping many of them earn the nickname "pimpmobile."  Despite my best efforts, I could not find an online brochure.

By the 1990s, Foxx was facing severe financial difficulties and was constantly at odds with the IRS, who had a habit of seizing his home and possessions.  His generosity to friends and family over the years only worsened his economic stability, as did his three failed marriages.  Needing to revitalize his savings, Foxx signed on to the CBS sit-com The Royal Family, which partnered him with actress Della Reese.  The series also starred a very young Naya Rivera, who passed away herself in 2020 in a drowning accident.  You can watch the series intro here.  

The series premiered in September 1991.  A few weeks later, on October 11th, Foxx was giving an on-set interview to Entertainment Tonight.  One of his producers became irate that Foxx was not participating in a scene that was being rehearsed, one in which he had no dialogue and was merely seen walking in the background.  Foxx begrudgingly complied with the producer and walked through the scene, but fell to the floor in doing so.  You can watch Della Reese describe the scene here.

At first, no one suspected anything was wrong, as Foxx had made a career out of pratfalls and fake heart attacks.  When Reese went to help him, she realized just how serious it really was, when Foxx asked her to "get my wife."

When paramedics arrived on the set, they initially pronounced him dead, but he was temporarily resuscitated and transported to Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.  He died there a second time, just four hours later.  He was 68 years old.

Redd Foxx was buried at Palm Memorial Park in his hometown of Las Vegas.  His headstone features a red fox.

Location: Devotion Section,
Lawn Space #4091, Space #311G

Rest in peace, you big dummy!

  • The character of Fred Sanford was in fact named after Foxx's brother.

  • In a bid to avoid military service during World War 2, Foxx consumed a bar of soap before his physical.  It caused a series of heart palpitations which the doctors mistook to be a natural condition.  The ploy worked, and he was given a pass from military service.

  • Foxx's Sanford and Son co-star Lawanda Page was the subject of a previous post on this blog.  You can revisit her grave here.

  • As mentioned in Lawanda's blog post, Redd Foxx used to own an office building in downtown L.A.  Although it has since been torn down, the sidewalk out front still contains the signatures of Foxx and his friends written in cement.  If you look closely, you can also see his footprints as well.  Read about it here.

  • Foxx released a joke book in 1977.  You can pick up a copy of The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor from Amazon.  

  • Hollywood car creator George Barris created a customized roadster for Foxx, dubbed "Redd Foxx's Li'l Red Wrecker."  Check out the specs here.

  • At the time of his death, Foxx was in excessive debt to the IRS and had very few assets.  As a result, longtime friend Eddie Murphy paid all of his funeral expenses.

  • As mentioned above, Foxx was good friends with actor Pat Morita.  It's probably not a coincidence then that Morita was cremated at the same Las Vegas cemetery where Foxx was laid to rest.

  • The truck that was used on Sanford and Son is now in the hands of Tim Franko and Jeff Canter, owners of BlueLine Classics in North Royalton, Ohio.  You can visit the truck in their showroom there, or catch it at car shows and celebrity events.

  • The Royal Family was shot on what is now Stage 31 at Paramount.  In the 1960s, it was home to the original Star Trek TV series.  In essence, Redd Foxx died on the bridge of the Enterprise.

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