The characters stick in our minds today just as they did in January 1972 when “Sanford and Son” debuted on NBC.
The sitcom, modeled on the British series “Steptoe and Son,” demonstrated that an all-Black cast could hold its own in a TV market crowded with comedies.
None of the others, however, had a star like “Sanford and Son.”
In a genius move, producers Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, the creative mind behind “All in the Family,” plucked Redd Foxx, the bluest of blue comics, from the nightclub circuit and built the series around his wit.
Cast as junk dealer Fred G. Sanford, Foxx played the wise-cracking bigot with the same clarity of character as the Broadway-seasoned Carroll O’Connor did Archie Bunker, a blue-collar racist.
Foxx proved a Black man could sling ethnic slurs and lean on stereotypes with the same cleverness O’Connor displayed. Yet Foxx took the Sanford character even farther.
His sitcom was deeper than bigotry, because to look at the series as that is to miss its aim altogether. Through its humor, “Sanford and Son” paid homage to father-and-son relationships, often difficult for Black fathers and their sons.
Fred’s relationship with his son Lamont, a role Demond Wilson played as if it were his story, was difficult and loving rolled into one half-hour episode.
The interplay between the men, their real lives and their outlooks separated by a generation, led to extraordinary theater. It was pure humor, too:
“I still want to sow some wild oats,” Fred said in one episode.
“At your age,” Lamont told “Pop,” “you don’t have no wild oats, you got shredded wheat.”
Beyond the laughter, which having Foxx as its face ensured the series would be larded with, “Sanford and Son” illustrated how seamlessly Black actors could draw Prime Time viewers from both sides of the color line, and it surely did, a Top 10 series in five-of-its-six seasons on air.
As much as irascible Fred and irrepressible Lamont hogged the best lines, they had plenty of help from actors who held lesser roles. Those who watched the sitcom each week found the Bible-thumping Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page) irresistible in her overdramatic efforts in keeping Fred from going to hell.
So were Grady (Whitman Mayo), Bubba (Don Bexley) and Rollo (Nathaniel Taylor), Lamont’s bell-bottom-, platform-shoe-wearing sidekick.
Doubtless, the groundbreaking sitcom had its detractors. A few of them were Black. They loathed the wily-but-shiftless Fred, who looked in their eyes like a rejiggered version of Stepin Fetchit; they also hated the fact Foxx, notorious for his risqué routines on stage, got the star’s billing.
Such criticism missed the humor, as inventive today as it was in the ’70s. While more celebrated TV series have lost their allure as reruns, “Sanford and Son” has not.
In a 2020 getTV interview, Wilson put it best, “Of all the television shows that have been done since the 1950s, only a handful of them have survived. As long as pop culture exists, ‘Sanford and Son’ will be part of it.”
He was right.
Humor crisscrosses generations, which explains why comics like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lucille Ball and Don Rickles stand as tall now as they did during their heydays.
It also explains why, 50 years later, the old-school “Sanford and Son” remains must-see TV.