Redd Foxx charmed his way onto TV and into hearts of millions APPRECIATION

October 14, 1991|By Ray Richmond | Ray Richmond,Orange County Register

They don't make 'em like Redd Foxx anymore, which is reason enough to mourn the crusty comedian's death Friday evening from a heart attack at age 68.

Mr. Foxx was one of those guys who told crude jokes in mixed company, spoke with a pronounced rasp and displayed a generally cantankerous attitude. He was, in other words, the last guy you would expect to become a television star in network prime time. But he did, and he was.

The word "throwback" is a term so overused it has become rather trite. But it truly seems to apply in the case of Redd Foxx. The man was a true Hollywood character who fairly plowed through life -- living too well (and, to hear the Internal Revenue Service tell it, extravagantly), partying too hard and yet never forgetting who his friends were.

And charm? Mr. Foxx had it to burn. It was an impressive trick to sell NBC on his mainstream TV marketability in the early 1970s.

Here was an entertainer whose major claim to fame before the 1970s was as a comic specializing in blue material, the kind told in sleazy after-hours nightclubs. He also recorded a slew of underground "party" albums featuring similarly raunchy comedy.

So imagine if this Foxx character was presented to you with a series pitch like, "He's a blustery 65-year-old black junk dealer in Watts, a widower with this craggy kind of face, a bowlegged walk and a voice that seems to have sprouted from emphysema. Oh, and his 35-year-old son works in the junk business as a partner -- reluctantly."

Not exactly the kind of brilliant concept typically embraced by television executives for its potential to sell deodorant and cranberry-juice cocktail. But both Mr. Foxx and his NBC comedy "Sanford and Son" became an unlikely instant hit.

And was it ever a smash. Producer Norman Lear's "Sanford" finished its rookie season of 1972-73 second overall in the ratings behind Mr. Lear's other hit, "All in the Family." The following year, it took third place. The year after that, it was second again.

You could have knocked the television industry over with a feather. Mr. Foxx's wisecracking Fred Sanford proved an immensely lovable old scoundrel, and his series helped forge a new image for blacks on the nighttime tube.

Before "Sanford and Son," blacks on network TV were portrayed according to a host of safe stereotypes. They were either militant and angry or loose and jiving. In "Sanford," TV had its first comedy in which black men forged their own path without being dependent on the Caucasian world.

So you might go so far as to say that Redd Foxx was a trailblazer, though he undoubtedly would have dismissed that sort of tag with a wave of his hand and a trademark disgusted gutteral emission.

It was a credit to Mr. Foxx's rather remarkable resilience that 14 years after "Sanford and Son" was knocked from the air, he had returned to prime time this fall as co-star (with Della Reese) of CBS' "The Royal Family."

Fred Sanford would have been proud. Mr. Foxx accrues a reported $2.9 million IRS debt. What to do? No problem. Just get another high-paying TV job. Even at 68, Mr. Foxx was still every ounce the hustler.

The irony is that Mr. Foxx would succumb to a heart attack. It seemed that every week on "Sanford and Son," Fred would feign a coronary and intone to his late wife, "Here I come, Elizabeth" to keep son Lamont from walking out the door.

Now that Mr. Foxx has moved on to the big junkyard in the sky, he's probably selling pieces of cloud to some poor sap and getting top dollar. But it was selling himself that Redd Foxx did best.

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