The popular American sitcom Sanford and Son ran for six seasons, and was a groundbreaking show for African American comedy. However, what happened behind the scenes was even more interesting than what aired on TV. Find out more about the cast of the show, poor treatment by the network, and scandals on the set.
CBS Seriously Regretted Passing on This Show
While another Norman Lear show, All in the Family was on of CBS’s major hits, the network took a pass on Sanford and Son—and it’s safe to say they regretted that choice. Executive Producer Bud Yorkin claimed he was unable to get any interest from the network. However, CBS’s then-president Fred Silverman remembers things a little differently.
“We had All in the Family on the air and Bud and Norman [Lear] came in with the idea, and it was called Steptoe and Son,” he said. “They failed to mention that Redd Foxx was on it, or that it was going to be a black show. … I said, ‘Well I don’t understand, you are selling us a show we already have.” He later admitted, “It was one of the stupidest things I did at CBS.”
Ahead: the shocking treatment one star revealed in his memoir
The Camera Added 10 Years for Redd Foxx
When Redd Foxx started playing the cantankerous character Fred Sanford, he was just 49 years old. The actor donned makeup to make himself play the part of his 65-year-old character. Much to the chagrin of Foxx, many people thought he was his character’s age in real life.
In addition to getting into character with makeup, Foxx also gave his Fred Sanford his distinctive walk using an unusual method. The actor wore weighted shoes to achieve his off-kilter shuffle-waddle. It’s hard to believe Foxx wasn’t a card-carrying AARP member while on the show, but pictures from off the set at the same time show a much younger man.
None of the Actors Thought the Show Would Last
Sanford and Son lasted 6 seasons for a total of 138 episodes, but before the show began, none of the stars thought it would last. Demond Wilson was asked to take on the role of Lamont Sanford by producer Bud Yorkin, but apparently, he needed to be convinced by his co-star Redd Foxx.
“I thought about it long and hard and decided to take a chance,” said Wilson. “Redd and I thought we could grab some quick cash plus notoriety, the move on to the next project.” Instead the show was a huge commercial and critical success. Sanford and Son also paved the way for many shows that would follow.
Fred Sanford’s Heart Attacks Came from Foxx’s Mother
Fred Sanford’s famous fake heart attacks are one of the most recognizable traits of the grumpy but beloved character. Red Foxx pulled inspiration from his own life to come up with the joke. Foxx told Sammy Davis Jr. on Sammy and Company, “Fred Sanford is Mary Sanford, who is my mother, but you can reverse personalities to male or female.”
He continued, “My mother would do the same thing … she would have heart attacks when I was a kid, I remember. When she wanted something done she could hardly breathe—she had emphysema, she had cancer, she had lumbago, she had whooping cough.”
Demond Wilson Is an Ordained Minister
After Demond Wilson’s breakout role as Lamont Sanford, he starred in the short lived CBS comedy Baby I’m Back, and in the ABC sitcom The New Odd Couple. He’s made a few TV appearances since. However, Wilson left most acting jobs behind to pursue a higher calling.
In 1984 Demond Wilson became an ordained minister, fulfilling a childhood vow he took after his appendix ruptured and almost killed him at age 13. Since becoming ordained, Wilson has focused on religious projects. He’s written several Christian books.
In addition to his Christian books, he wrote a memoir that reveals some shocking things that happened on set…. read on to learn what he had to say
Redd Foxx’s Shocking Death
Redd Foxx was famous for faking heart attacks on Sanford and Son, but on October 11, 1991, the actor suffered a real heart attack. Foxx was on a break from rehearsals for The Royal Family when he suffered a heart attack on set.
Foxx was about to do an interview when Della Reese noticed him on the ground. Foxx repeated “Get my wife,” before being taken to the Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center where he died at the age of 68. The irony of his cause of death makes the story that much more shocking. Foxx was outlived by his wife and mother.
LaWanda Page Was Almost Fired
It’s hard to imagine the role of the critical, Bible-toting sister-in law of Fred Sanford, Aunt Esther, being played by anyone but LaWanda Page, but that was almost the case. Page was too nervous to give producers an audition they liked, but Redd Foxx insisted she was the only woman for the role.
Page and Redd Foxx had a friendship that started in their pre-teens. They attended school together in St. Louis, and when they both decided to enter comedy, they supported each other throughout their careers. It’s a good thing Foxx insisted Page was right for the role, because her squabbles with Fred Sanford drew in greater ratings for the show.
Redd Foxx Walked Off
In the middle of taping episodes for the 1973-1974 season, Redd Foxx walked off the show because of a salary dispute. At the time, Foxx was earning $19,000 per episode, but argued the show’s high ratings justified more. As a result, Fred Sanford was written out of the rest of the season.
Fred’s absence was explained by him attending a cousin’s funeral. His friend Grady (Whitman Mayo) was left in charge. NBC sued Foxx saying he violated his contract by walking out. As part of the settlement, Foxx returned to the show. Despite airing in the Friday night death slot, the show managed to peak at #2 in the ratings.
The Fate of the Salvage Truck
The famous Sanford and Son Salvage truck was a 1951 Ford F1. For a while Red Foxx kept the truck at his home after the series ended, but returned it to NBC for the spin-off Sanford. The truck was later purchased at an auction by bill Milks, and then Donald Dimmitt of Dimmitt’s Salvage in Indiana purchased it in 1987 for $3500.
The car was later purchased by Jeff Canter, the owner of BlueLine Classics, a car dealership in Ohio. It has been preserved by BlueLine Classics and is proudly displayed in the showroom as well as at car shows.
The Spin-Offs Flopped
After Sanford and Son was canceled in 1977, a spin-off show came on the air. The supporting characters, including Grady, Aunt Esther, and Bubba, appeared in the short-lived Sanford Arms, but Norman Lear stepped down. It wasn’t the first attempt at a spin-off; during the 1975-1976 season, Whitman Mayo also starred in the spin-off Grady.
Redd Foxx even attempted to revive the show in 1980-1981 with the short-lived Sanford, but Demond Wilson refused to return to his role as Lamont Sanford in the new series. None of the Sanford and Son spin-offs were ever able to recreate the magic or the high ratings of the original series.
The Show That Killed The Brady Bunch
Sanford and Son didn’t just achieve high ratings in a Friday night time slot—it also went down in history as the “show that killed The Brady Bunch.” Sanford and Son peaked at #2 in the Nielson ratings during the 1972-1973 season and the 1974-1975 season. It was second only to another Norman Lear show, All in the Family.
On its fifth season in the same Friday night time slot, the popular sitcom The Brady Bunch went off the air in 1974, since many viewers were tuning into Sanford and Son instead. Both shows have achieved great syndication success and continue to air on TV.
Redd Foxx Loved the Ink Spots
Throughout the show, Redd Foxx’s character Fred Sanford often sang songs by The Ink Spots, a rhythm and blues group that gained international fame in the 1930s and 1940s. This character trait was inspired by Foxx’s own love of the group.
However, the royalties for songs by The Ink Spots were astronomical, and NBC refused to pay the cost. Instead, Redd Foxx paid for them out of his own pocket. Fred Sanford’s favorite song to sing on the show seemed to be “If I Didn’t Care” which was recorded by The Ink Spots and featured Bill Kenny. The song was released in 1939.
What’s in a Name?
Several characters in Sanford and Son were named after real life people. Fred Sanford was named after Redd Foxx’s brother, who died five years before the show premiered. Giving his character his brother’s name was a touching way for Foxx to pay tribute.
Lamont Sanford also got his name form someone in Foxx’s life—Lamont Ousley—one of the two other teenagers who made up a washtub band Foxx formed after dropping out of high school. The character Grady Wilson, played by Whitman Mayo, was even named after another actor on the show, Demond Wilson. Wilson’s full name is actually Grady Demond Wilson.
Redd Foxx Almost Missed out on the Role
Redd Foxx almost wasn’t offered the role of Fred Sanford. In fact, Cleavon Little of Blazing Saddles was first approached to work on the project, but declined because of prior commitments. It was Little who suggested Redd Foxx, his co-star in Cotton Comes to Harlem, for the role.
NBC reportedly wasn’t thrilled with the idea of casting Redd Foxx. Foxx was known as a stand-up comedian with very controversial material. A test screening of Foxx in the role was held with network executives and the cast of All in the Family in attendance. The fake heart attack gag sold the show.
Wilson’s Memoir Reveals Shocking Treatment
Demond Wilson released a memoir called Second Banana: The Bitter Sweet Memoir of the Sanford & Sons Years in 2009. The memoir isn’t meant to be a tell-all or get-even memoir, but Wilson does reveal the truth about how he and Redd Foxx were treated at NBC.
“We were breaking ground, we were making history, [but] when we first came to NBC, we didn’t even have dressing rooms, except on a shoot day,” he wrote. “We were dressing in the men’s room When our first show aired… [the ratings] went through the ceiling and then Redd and I started dealing with them like men. Redd and I were making history and they tried to deal with us like we were third-class field hands.”
Memorable Catch Phrases
Several of Sanford and Son’s memorable catch phrases found their way into popular culture after the show aired. The most memorable catch phrase might be some variation of “Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you honey!” which Fred Sanford always exclaimed during one of his fake heart attacks, implying he was going to join his deceased wife soon.
Aunt Esther also knew how to shut down Fred’s insults with a simple, “You old fish-eyed fool,” which signaled she was done with their squabble for the day. Grady also had a memorable catch phrase he shouted with surprised, alarmed, or excited, “Great googly moogly!”
Lamont and Rollo Weren’t BFFs in Real Life
Demond Wilson’s character Lamont Sanford is best friends in the show with Rollo Lawson, played by Nathaniel Taylor. Behind the scenes, it was a different story. Wilson told ILoveOldSchoolMusic.Com in 2015 that he and Taylor never really got along while they were filming the series.
Demond Wilson also said the last time he saw Nathaniel Taylor was in 1977, and that the only reason they appeared to have good chemistry on screen was because they were high most of the time they were shooting episodes. It’s hard to believe these on-screen BFFs really couldn’t stand each other behind the scenes.
Demond Wilson’s Private Struggles
Though Demond Wilson is an ordained minister who is active on the gospel circuit, he’s had some private struggles throughout the years. The Sanford and Son set wasn’t the only place Wilson got high. The actor had a $1,000-a-week cocaine habit and a rocky marriage with stewardess turned model Cicely Johnston, who he cheated on.
His spiritual epiphany came in May of 1982 when his wife was in the hospital and he felt completely alone. He prayed he would get his family back together before immersing himself in studying the Bible and becoming an evangelist. He no longer drinks, smokes, or even dances.
Redd Foxx’s Financial Problems
According to those on the Sanford and Son set, Redd Foxx was often so generous with his money that he found himself broke. This led to his major financial problems. At one time, he earned over $4 million a year, but his lavish lifestyle and bad money management depleted his fortune, as well as paying out a $300,000 divorce settlement in 1981.
In 1989, the IRS seized Foxx’s home in Las Vegas and his seven vehicles to pay the taxes he owed, which had grown to $996,630. They also took $12,769 in cash, a dozen guns, and some 300 items in total. At the time of his death in 1991, Foxx reportedly owed more than $3.6 million in taxes.
Demond Wilson’s Non-Profit Work
In 1995, Demond Wilson started a non-profit called Restoration House of America. “Restoration House was formed for the rehabilitation of first time prison offenders. We offer GED and college courses, but mostly teach entrepreneurial skills,” said Demond in a 1996 interview. The idea first sparked when Demond and Redd used to go entertain in prisons.
“You have a lot of men who stray from the truth and from the law, but they’re not bad people.” At the time, Demond identified with the prisoners, as he carried guilt from bad decisions he had made in his life, but he believed that one day he’d be free from it all and wanted to give that hope to others in similar predicaments.
Demond and Redd: First Blacks on Lasting Sitcom
Sanford & Son was a cultural staple within the African-American community. “Redd and I were making history back in those days. We were the first blacks to be on television in that capacity and we opened the door for all those other shows that came after us,” said Demond.
Later successes included The Cosby Show and Black-ish. The biggest complaint from African-American actors from the late 70s through late 80s was the fact that their roles were short-lived. Doomed to fail, Sanford & Son defied the odds, topped the charts in popularity and sailed through six amazing seasons.
Quincy Jones Said the Show Would Flop, But Took a Check from It Anyway
Quincy Jones was a popular composer at the time Sanford & Son was getting ready to air. He was crossing over into mainstream audiences due to his work with Frank Sinatra a couple years before the creation of the show.
The producers of Sanford & Son sought to bridge cultural gaps and thought Jones would be perfect to write the theme song. He agreed, but only after he made sure producers knew what they were getting into with Redd Foxx. Said Jones: “not one word out of that comedian’s mouth is appropriate for NBC.” The song was called “Streetbeater.” “I just wrote what he looked like. It sounds just like him, doesn’t it?” Jones remarked.
Redd’s Magic Shoes
Redd Foxx claims the shoes they had him wear were magic. He struggled to keep character while practicing, so he would sneak on set and get his shoes. “Just as soon as I put those big heavy shoes on and walk out there, I become Sanford—but not until then, not until I put my shoes on,” said Redd.
“I can put the rest of the outfit on, but if I don’t have those shoes on, I don’t even think like him.” The rest of the cast knew how important those shoes were to Redd. They never dared to mess with them.
Demond’s Photographic Memory
“During the show I had the sense that this was going to be a monumental achievement in history so I kept a mental diary of things. I have a photographic memory, which always kind of annoyed Redd, but it’s come in handy,” Demond revealed.
Demond’s photographic memory gained him favor on the set of Sanford & Son. He claims he only had to look at his lines once. The rest of the cast confirmed this. They’d yell at him when they’d need hours to memorize their lines. Demond would just sit there, sipping on something sweet, snickering.
You Will Not Believe Who The Cast’s Dealer Was!
When Demond became a minister, he aired everybody’s secrets, even those you wouldn’t expect to have secrets… like Aunt Esther. Everyone can picture Aunt Esther clutching her Bible and wearing over-sized church hats, but who knew that she was actually high under that hat all those times? Not only was Aunt Esther never sober, she was the cast’s drug dealer! LaWanda Page a.k.a “Aunt Esther” kept the cast stocked without even charging them for the product. When confronted on the claims, she admitted to it (while laughing), but says she never did “any of that harder stuff.”
The Reason Redd Foxx Never Showed Up To Rehearsal
After the show stopped airing and books started being released of all the things that happened behind the scenes, there was no point in keeping secrets anymore, so the cast began to confess it all in the interviews that came after. Redd Foxx admitted he would miss one to three rehearsals a week because of his cocaine addiction.When he did show up, his voice would be mostly gone and by the time he recovered, rehearsal would be through. If you ever find yourself watching the re-runs, you’ll notice that Redd’s voice is more hoarse in some episodes, which will tell you which nights he decided to stay out.
Love at First Laugh
In the biography Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story aired in 2001, TV editor Michael Seth Starr spoke of the perfect chemistry between Foxx and Wilson. “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.” The natural chemistry that Redd and Demond shared landed them the job and made them a lasting duo.
The Bronze Goddess of Fire
LaWanda Page was a favorite on and off the set of Sanford & Son. Aunt Esther was known for her catch phrase, “Watch it, Sucka!” The attitude she displayed in her role was fitting to who LaWanda was in real life, but her attire… not so much. LaWanda Page started her career as a dancer.
The men who became her fans dubber her “the Bronze Goddess of Fire.” When dancing, she would light cigarettes without using a lighter, simply by the touch of her fingertips. Then she would swallow that fire and create an illusion that her body was going up in flames. Funny how she almost lost her role in Sanford & Son because of her shyness.
Redd Foxx Was the Reason the Show Got Cancelled
The show was cancelled six seasons deep while it was still rising in popularity. The ratings had not tanked at all. They were the highest the show had ever seen. Truth came out that Redd Foxx was unreliable and too much work for the directors to keep on.
Since there was no way the show would be the same without Redd, it had to be cancelled. The idea of a replacement was never an option. Nobody would’ve kept watching the show without Redd. Most of the cast continued building their careers and found great success, but it’s still a sad thought that there could have been more.
Anybody Notice That the Sanford House Wasn’t in a Single Episode?
Though the front of the Sanford House (which doubles as the Junk Store entrance) appears in the opening credits of each show, it has never been in any of the episodes. The crew is never seen hanging outside on the front porch or in front of the junkyard. A different location was used to film exterior scenes (and, fun fact, that location is currently used to run a plumbing business). The Sanfords’ address in the show was 9114 S. Central Avenue; Los Angeles, CA, which is now an office of the California Department of Corrections. You have to admit, that’s kind of funny.
Sanford & Son Killed LaWanda Page
For the first 20 years of her career, LaWanda Page made her money off her appearance. Her top priority was to maintain her health and physique. When she accepted the role of Aunt Esther, it lead to more opportunities with the same types of roles.
She had to gain weight to maintain character and her demanding schedule lead to a decline in her health. LaWanda started smoking heavily with the Sanford & Son cast and was eating late at night after rehearsals and filming would ended. Those habits eventually lead to her death in 2002. She died at the age of 81, from complications with her diabetes.
Sanford & Son “Cultured” Version of All in the Family
Norman Lear, creator of All In The Family, was also the mind behind Sanford & Son. If you’ve ever watched Sanford & Son and wondered why the feeling is so familiar, it’s because of him. Lear wanted to carry the same ideas into different cultures and see if they’d take.
The same writer’s room that thought up the controversial and racially insensitive Archie Bunker was the same group of professionals that introduced Fred Sanford to the world. Both characters had mean spirits about them and walked around making the same rude remarks. They’re essentially culturally opposite, but one at heart and script, on purpose.
Help a Brother Out
In one episode of the show, Fred refers to a travel agency ran by cast member Whitman Mayo, a.k.a “Grady.” Whitman started Mayo Travel Agency out of Inglewood, California as a side business while he was trying to make it as an actor. He focused solely on maintaining his travel agency after he left Sanford & Son, and continued running it until a heart attack in 2001 that resulted in his death.
According to the directors, “Redd was always looking out for his brothers,” hence his mention of Whitman’s business on air. One of the reasons Redd was constantly in financial trouble was because he was so willing to give what he had to the people around him. I guess that makes up for the bad stuff.
Fred and Lamont Were Supposed to Be Italian
The producers originally planned for characters Fred and Lamont to be Italian men. They weren’t convinced that black characters would work, but in the end, CBS executive Fred Silverman allowed them to take that risk. After trying out some Italian actors and never having it feel quite right, the network caved.
Fred Silverman and Aaron Ruben had seen dozens of shows fail that had cast black actors, but they believed there was no other way for Sanford & Son to come alive as they had envisioned. The results exceeded their expectations. We’re all glad that CBS took that chance.
Larry King – Demond Was the Worst Interview I’ve Ever Done
Larry King made a pretty outrageous statement when he said that out of all the people he’s ever interviewed, Demond Wilson was the worst in manner and speech. Larry King’s list of guests includes presidents, royalty, and the rich and famous; people you would think to be extremely pompous. Yet Larry claims, “Demond Wilson was the single most unpleasant interview I’ve done… because of his tremendous arrogance.” At the time of the interview, Demond was ministering all over the world, and proud of it! Those who had tuned in to hear about his lifestyle change were pretty disappointed.
Wilson’s Arrogance in the Midst of Foxx’s Death
In an interview right after the passing of Redd Foxx, Demond shook off his former co-star’s death flippantly. “I’m good. My shows are shown in 40 countries, my books are selling around the world. I’ve done several movies and I get residuals. I get 10 grand for a speaking engagement. So I’m cool.”
This was probably the attitude Larry King was referring to when he said he had never met a man as arrogant as Wilson his entire career in show biz. It’s great to be proud of your success, but… proper time and place, dude.
Wilson the Ballet Dancer
While you might be getting tired of Demond Wilson by now, out of everyone on the cast of Sanford & Son, he has definitely had the most interesting life. He grew up in New York City where he studied tap dance and ballet as a child. That education landed him a role on Broadway at the age of four.
He spent his summers at his grandmother’s Pentecostal church where he considered becoming a minister, but he had an itch to act in Hollywood, so he left for California. It’s funny how everything comes back around. Wilson is now the minister he never (always?) wanted to be.
Redd’s Daughter Worked in Guantanamo Bay
Nobody really knew that Redd had a daughter until Demond came out with his book Second Banana and started giving interviews about the cast. Apparently Redd served in Vietnam before his acting career. When he started a family of his own, he told his daughter, Nicole, that he never wanted her to know the military life. Yet when she grew up, she decided to go against her father’s wishes and join the Navy. Nicole was stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as an officer in a prison camp. “She loves it. She’s a ‘lifer,’ as they used to call ’em,” said Redd.
Sanford & Son – A Solid Six Years
Sanford & Son will always be a TV classic. Reruns continue to warm our hearts and remind us that what the Sanford & Son crew had going on was pretty special. Though Redd ruined it for us all, the show did have a good life-span. Six years solid, it never left its 8pm spot, every Friday night on NBC. There is a laugh that only Sanford & Son can produce, so whether you have to go buy all the seasons on DVD now, or record all the reruns on your television, you still need the Sanford & Son crew in your life. We all do.
Sanford and Son Was a Spin-Off
While Sanford and Son stands completely on its own, few people know that the popular American sitcom was actually a spin-off of a BBC Television program called Steptoe and Son. The character archetypes in both shows are very similar.
Steptoe and Son focused on the inter-generational conflict of Albert Steptoe, a “dirty old man” who is set in his ways, and his 37-year-old son Harold, who is filled with social aspirations. Like Sanford and Son, this BBC sitcom attained great popularity in its own country. The show was also remade in Sweden as Albert & Herbert and in the Netherlands as Stiefbeen en zoon.
A Little Connection
Well before he became Lamont, Demond Wilson had a guest spot in one episode of All in the Family (he played a robber). He played alongside Cleavon Little. We see situations like this all the time. Actors end up playing alongside each other on one show before they end up playing in a different series for more than just one episode.
And as we mentioned earlier, Little was the one who recommended that Red Foxx play the part of Fred Sanford. Little could have been on the show if he didn’t have prior engagements.
The network struck gold once so why not try and ride the wave of the show after it was cancelled? NBC attempted to use the property in one more series. The new show saw Phil Wheeler move into Sanford’s home, trying to turn the home next door into a hotel.
It was called Sanford Arms. A few characters from Sanford and Son appeared but the show never stuck. As a result, the show ended after only four episodes. It looks like they couldn’t keep the momentum going but at least they gave it a shot.
The Switch To Mainstream
Back when Redd Foxx was still on the rise, his life would change for the better in 1966. It was that year he played the Aladdin Hotel. He was the first African American comic to be a headliner in Las Vegas.
He used his earnings to open up the Redd Foxx Club in Los Angeles. It was here that he ended up inspiring future comics like Richard Pryor. “He was the epitome,” Nesteroff quotes Pryor as saying. “He was doing it all – being himself on stage, pulling no punches, a totally no-BS act.”
And The Winner Is…
When you’re good, it doesn’t take long for your greatness to be recognized. Sanford and Son was almost instantly popular when the show first came out. When the first season ended in April 1972, it was ranked number six in total viewers. That isn’t half bad.
The show was so good that Redd Foxx received his first Emmy nod for Best Actor in a Comedy Series in three months time. He would end up losing to Carroll O’Connor from All in the Family. Foxx would be nominated two more times but he lost both times.
A True Pioneer
When trying to get into entertainment, you usually have a “big break”. For Redd Foxx, his big break came when he and fellow comic Slappy White opened up for Dinah Washington who was a prominent blues singer in the early ’50s.
Not too far in the future, his solo act (which was very raunchy) became the norm in African American clubs and on explicit records for parties. “Foxx released the first authentic recordings taken from the nightclub stage,” Kliph Nesteroff wrote in The Comedians: Drunks. “By the early 1960s, everyone was in the game. Comedy records were a national phenomenon.”