For those of you who don’t know who Norman Lear is, he is the legendary actor, writer, producer, director, and creator of such renowned sitcoms as All in the Family, Good Times, Sanford & Son and The Jefferson’s, which Gene Siskel, known best for his critical reviews of both television and movies, said: “What All in the Family did for the Caucasian race in our nation with television, Sanford and Son did for African Americans. It is one of the two most noted and significant African American sitcoms since the invention of television.” Sanford & Son defined and revolutionized American television and many believe paved the way for such series like the Cosby Show.
The 1972 NBC television program Sanford and Son chronicled the adventures of Fred G. Sanford, a cantankerous widower living with his grown son, Lamont, in the notorious Watts section of Los Angeles, California. The show was based on and licensed from the format of a British program, Steptoe & Son, which featured the exploits of a cockney junk dealer making Sanford and Son as the American version.
The starring role of Sanford and Son was portrayed by actor-comedian Redd Foxx. Foxx (born John Elroy Sanford) was no newcomer to the entertainment industry. His racy comedy routines had influenced generations of black comics since the 1950’s. It was Foxx’s enormously funny portrayal of sixty-five year old Fred G. Sanford that quickly earned Sanford and Son a place among the top-ten watched television programs to air on NBC television. He was supported by Demond Wilson playing his 30-year-old son, Lamont Sanford, who really supported the junk and salvage business and served as the butt of Sanford’s often bigoted jokes and insults.
Foxx portrayed Sanford as a sarcastic, irascible schemer whose frequent get-rich-quick ideas routinely backfired. His son Lamont yearns for independence, but he loves his father too much to move out on his own and leave the trouble-prone Fred unsupervised. Though each owns an equal share in the business and though, technically, Fred is the boss, Lamont often finds himself doing all the work and having to order his father to complete tasks and duties. Fred often insults his son, usually calling him a “big dummy.” Lamont also insults his father, referring to him as an “old fool.” However, the two have a close bond and regularly come to each other’s aid.
Though enormously successful, Foxx became dissatisfied with the show, its direction, and his treatment as star of the program. In a Los Angeles Times article, he stated, “Certain things should be yours to have when you work your way to the top.” At one point he walked off the show complaining that the white producers and writers had little regard for or appreciation of African-American life and culture. In newspaper interviews he attacked the total lack of black writers or directors.
Sanford and Son survived some five years on prime-time television. It earned its place in television history as the first successful, mostly black cast television sitcom to appear on American network, primetime television in twenty years since the cancellation of Amos ‘n’ Andy. It was an enormously funny program, sans obvious ethnic stereotyping. “I’m convinced that Sanford and Son shows middle class America a lot of what they need to know…” Foxx said in a 1973 interview. “The show …doesn’t drive home a lesson, but it can open up people’s minds enough for them to see how stupid every kind of prejudice can be.”
Unlike my previous post where I complained that American Studios milk a series for all it’s worth leaving it to die a miserable death, Sanford and Son went out on top. When the show came to an end it was still at the top of the Nielsen ratings—even driving the Brady Bunch off the air.
Some material from Sanford and Son is now considered too controversial to air on network television and is routinely edited in syndication, specifically, derogatory racial references.
The episode “Fred Sanford, Legal Eagle” (see clip below) was edited before being aired on the cable TV network TV Land. In the unedited version, Fred represents Lamont in traffic court as his legal counsel. At the climax of the episode, Fred confronts the white traffic policeman who wrote Lamont the ticket. “Hey, look here,” Fred asks the policeman, “why don’t you arrest some white drivers?” When the policeman answers, “I do,” Fred gestures to the court observers, who are all black, and asks, “Well where are they? Look at all these *****s in here!” Upon uttering this statement, the live studio audience went crazy with laughter and applause. Redd Foxx had to pause for the crowd to settle down before delivering the coup de grâce: “There’s enough *****s in here to make a Tarzan movie!” In the TV Land version of this episode, Fred’s questioning of the policeman abruptly ends after “What do you have against black people?”
In thinking about this episode, I find myself reflecting on Foxx’s contemporary, Carroll O’Connor, playing Archie Bunker in All in the Family, which was also produced by Norman Lear at around the same time. I can well imagine O’Connor as Archie, who was famous for his politically incorrect comments, making the exact same statement Foxx did, and I would imagine that had this interaction occurred on All in the Family, it would have been redacted out of the episode by now as well. Still: is a comment that would be racist if uttered by a white O’Connor as Archie Bunker truly equally racist when uttered by Redd Foxx as Sanford? Is it really true, that in the United States of the 1970s, that the “n-word” would carry the exact same connotations no matter what the race is of the person saying it? Is that even true today?
I think editing the show is disgraceful. I am not implying or otherwise endorsing the use of such language, but let’s face it; it was part of TV history. We sanitize enough already in this world why do we have to move to classic TV sitcoms?