Opening theme "The Streetbeater"
Theme music composer Quincy Jones
First episode date 14 January 1972
Cast Redd Foxx, Demond Wilson
|Based on Steptoe and Sonby Ray GaltonAlan Simpson|
Developed by Norman Lear (uncredited)
Starring Redd FoxxDemond Wilson
Theme song Sanford and Son Theme (The Streetbeater)
Spin-offs Sanford, Sanford Arms, Grady
Similar Sanford, Grady, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times
Sanford and son intro
- Sanford and son intro
- Fred Sanford
- Lamont Sanford
- Series progression
- Other characters
- Reception and cancellation
- Spin offs and 198081 revival
- DVD releases
Known for its edgy racial humor, running gags and catchphrases, the series was adapted by Norman Lear and considered NBC's answer to CBS's All in the Family. Sanford and Son has been hailed as the precursor to many other African American sitcoms. It was a ratings hit throughout its six-season run.
While the role of Fred G. Sanford was known for his bigotry and cantankerousness, the role of Lamont Sanford was that of a conscientious peacemaker. At times, both characters would involve themselves in schemes, usually as a means of earning cash quickly in order to pay off their various debts. Other colorful and unconventional characters on the show included Aunt Esther, Grady Wilson, Bubba Bexley, and Rollo Larson.
In 2007, Time magazine included the show on their list of the "100 Best TV Shows of All Time".
Sanford and Son stars Redd Foxx as Fred G. Sanford, a widower and junk dealer living at 9114 South Central Avenue in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, and Demond Wilson as his son Lamont Sanford. In his youth, Fred moved to South Central Los Angeles from his hometown of St. Louis.
After the show's premiere in 1972, newspaper ads touted Foxx as NBC's answer to Archie Bunker, the bigoted white protagonist of All in the Family. Both shows were adapted by Norman Lear from BBC programs. Sanford and Son was adapted from Steptoe and Son and All in the Family from Till Death Us Do Part.
Redd Foxx played Fred G. Sanford (named after Redd Foxx's [real name: John Elroy Sanford] brother, Fred), portraying him as a sarcastic, streetwise, irascible schemer whose frequent get-rich-quick ideas routinely backfired. His son Lamont longs for independence, but loves his father too much to move out and leave the trouble-prone Fred unsupervised. Though each owns an equal share in the business (technically Fred is the boss), Lamont often finds himself doing all the work and demanding his father complete tasks and duties, which he almost never does. Fred often insults his son, usually calling him "dummy". Lamont returns the favor, referring to Fred as an "old fool." Despite their disagreements, the two share a close bond and regularly come to each other's aid. An episode in the second season featured a plot in which Fred and Lamont had a heated argument over the business; Lamont quit and went to work for one of his father's business competitors. Meanwhile, Fred filled Lamont's position with a slacker who squandered Fred's money on a worthless item. When Lamont quits his new job and Fred fires the slacker, the two decide to reform their partnership, though each is too proud to admit they could not make it without the other.
According to Fred, his wife Elizabeth died around 1947. In a running gag in the series, during times of distress, Fred looks up (as to heaven) with his hand across his chest, faking a heart attack and saying, "This is The Big One, Elizabeth! I'm coming to join ya honey." No one, however, falls for this transparent ruse. Fred raised Lamont alone and missed Elizabeth deeply. According to Fred, his son was named for Lamont Lomax, a pitcher from the Homestead Grays. In one episode, Lamont asks why he did not have a middle name; Fred tells him that Lamont is his middle name: he and Elizabeth never came up with a first name. However, it was revealed in the 3rd episode of the first season Lamont was named "Lamont Grady Sanford."
Initially, Fred's main antagonist on the show was his sister-in-law and Lamont's aunt, Ethel (Beah Richards). Ethel's involvement in the Sanford family squabbles lasted until midway through the second season, where she was replaced in the cast with her more tart-tongued sister, Esther (LaWanda Page). Fred and Esther's relationship as in-laws went on to become a major part of the plot. The two frequently trade insults, usually instigated by Fred, who contorts his face upon Esther's entrance and describes her with disparaging and colorful metaphors (such as comparing her to King Kong). The deeply religious, no-nonsense Esther typically responds to Fred's insults by scowling, saying "Watch it, sucka!", referring to him as "You old heathen" or "old fish-eyed fool", or even attacking Fred with her purse when he continues his remarks. Esther's disdain for Fred goes back to when he and Elizabeth were dating; she disapproved of Fred marrying her sister.
Despite his stubbornness and irascible nature, Fred sometimes redeems himself with acts of kindness, even to those (like Esther) whom he insists he does not like. In the last episode of the series, Fred earns his high school diploma, and is the valedictorian of his graduating class.
Earlier in the show's run it more closely adhered to the format of its British predecessor, Steptoe and Son with 16 episodes (12 in season one and 4 in season two) being re-made from the original "Galton and Simpson" scripts with Fred and Lamont often at odds over various issues. Fred and Lamont are also depicted as being equally manipulative. Fred manipulates with constant threats of "The big one" and avoids manual labor due to his "arthur-itis". In earlier episodes, Lamont through various antics would try and drive a wedge between his father and Fred's girlfriend, Donna Harris (Lynn Hamilton), who he disapproves of as he sees her as trying to usurp his mother's place.
Demond Wilson played Lamont Sanford, who is depicted at times as the greedier of the two. In one episode, for example, he refuses to sell two coffins for less than what he thinks they were worth, despite the fact that even possessing them upsets his superstitious father. Lamont sometimes receives his comeuppance for being disdainful of his father's habits and ways. (One example of this is the time Lamont is upbraided by a Nigerian woman who considers his attitude towards Fred to be disrespectful.) There are moments when Lamont is shown to be naive and foolish, such as the episode where he invites his new "friends" over to play poker. His street-savvy father immediately recognizes that they are card sharps, out to cheat Lamont after they gain his confidence by letting him win a few smaller-stakes games. After Lamont has lost all of his money, Fred turns the tables on the scammers by pretending to be ignorant of poker himself, agreeing to play a few hands and then taking all of their money by means of a marked deck of cards and special glasses that allow him to see what he is dealing. A similar predicament befalls Lamont in the second season when he gets involved in an unethical deal by purchasing a possibly valuable Regency commode from a woman for a rock-bottom price, then selling it back to her husband at double the price. He then takes an offer from a third party for quadruple that price while Fred tries over and over again to warn him that he is doing something immoral. Lamont becomes so angry that he threatens to lock Fred in his bedroom. Finally, due to some investigation on Fred's part, it is revealed that Lamont has been scammed, the pot is a fake and the culprits have made off with several hundred dollars of Lamont's money.
One constant with Lamont (particularly in the second season) is that he is always trying to find new ways to move up in the world, and away from the junk business, like his British counterpart, Harold Steptoe (played by Harry H. Corbett), but is often thwarted by Fred's interference. In the first episode, he buys a possibly valuable piece of porcelain from an elderly woman in Beverly Hills with the intention of selling at auction. However, Fred messes things up at the auction and Lamont ends up buying the piece back from himself. In the second season, Lamont buys a revolutionary war rifle from an auction with the intent to sell it for thousands. While investigating it, Fred accidentally fires the gun through the front window and he and Lamont spend all night wondering if he's accidentally killed the neighbor across the street who appears to be missing. In a panic, Lamont melts the gun down before realizing that the neighbor was just out of town. In one episode, he attempts to become an actor, Lamont and Rollo answer an ad for wannabe black film actors for an independent film company only to realize that it is really a pornographic film factory. In another episode, he answers an ad to travel around the world working on a tramp steamer, which would mean putting Fred in a nursing home, but Fred tricks him into not going. During the third season, Lamont attempts to open a side business with Julio selling used automobile parts. Fred is so upset that he leaves and moves into a flop house. Lamont eventually convinces Fred to come home, but whether or not he left the new business venture is never addressed.
The most significant change in Lamont's character throughout the series was his attitude toward his work, his father and his future. In the very first episode, he is portrayed as hostile and angry toward Fred and the life he is forced to live, especially when Fred's interference ruins his plans; similar to the relationship of Harold Steptoe and Albert Steptoe. This would last through the middle of the first season, especially in an episode when he takes Fred out on the town for his birthday and is frustrated by Fred's lack of manners & embarrassed by his crudeness in public. At the end of the night, he becomes so angry that he abandons Fred at the restaurant, leaving his father to walk home in the rain. His attitude towards Fred would soften by mid-season as episodes tended to focus more on the two working together to solve a problem, as when several bill collectors converged on the house threatening to repossess their belongings. He would change throughout the series and become a man dedicated to his work and to his father, but also who would try new things and new ideas to better himself, such as when he attempts to embrace his African heritage or later when he tries to run for State Assemblyman.
As the series progressed, it focused more on Fred's antics and schemes, with Lamont often adopting the role of the gentler, more open-minded progressive who attempts to broaden his father's horizons, in much the same way that Mike attempts to broaden Archie's horizons on the related show All In The Family. A notable example of the softening of Lamont's character is his change in attitude towards Donna Harris (Lynn Hamilton), Fred's girlfriend. Early in the show's run Lamont derides her as "the barracuda" and is openly hostile towards her, attempting to ruin her relationship with his father at least twice. In a later episode, however, Lamont invites Donna out to dinner with himself and his girlfriend, remarking that it would do his reputation good to be seen with "two lovely ladies."
Similarly, Fred is initially depicted as a man who, though not always ethically or culturally sensitive, has the wisdom of experience and significant street smarts. As the series progressed, Fred got into increasingly ludicrous situations, such as: faking an English accent to get a job as a waiter; convincing a white couple that an earthquake was really the "Watts Line" of the then-nonexistent L.A. subway (a wordplay on the common phrase "WATS line"); taking over a play featuring George Foreman; or sneaking into a celebrity's private area, such as Lena Horne's dressing room or Frank Sinatra's hotel room. Some of these situations revolve around Fred trying to make a quick buck.
One constant throughout the show is the loyalty of father and son to each other. Even in the show's earliest episodes when one or the other leaves the house, seemingly for good (Lamont moves out at least twice, and at one point he even puts Fred in a retirement home), something always occurs to return the situation to normal. (Lamont gets homesick and worries about his father, or something does not work out and Lamont schemes his way back in, Lamont feels lonely without his father around the house thanks to a plan Fred hatched with his friend Bubba, etc.)
Perhaps the best example of this bond between father and son occurs in the episode where a friend from Fred's past shows up and claims to be Lamont's real father. After hearing the news, Lamont tells a tearful Fred that he is "the only pop I've ever known" and as far as he is concerned, it is "always" going to be Sanford and Son. (In the humorous twist that closes the episode, it turns out the friend had actually slept with Aunt Esther, thinking she was her sister Elizabeth.) Lamont's birthday is mentioned in the third season episode "Libra Rising All Over Lamont" as September 27, 1940, although in a season five episode called "Ebenezer Sanford", Lamont says his birthday is in February.
Reception and cancellation
With its coveted 8 p.m. Eastern Friday night time slot, Sanford and Son put enough of a dent into the middling audience of ABC's The Brady Bunch to drive it off the air in 1974. Sanford and Son peaked at #2 in the Nielsen ratings during the 1972–73 season and the 1974-75 season. The series was second only to All in the Family in terms of ratings during those years. By the 1974–75 season, Sanford and Son's high lead-in helped the entire NBC Friday night lineup to place in the coveted bracket of the Top 15 shows (Chico and the Man, following Sanford, ranked #3 for the season, while the police dramas The Rockford Files and Police Woman aired later in the evening and ranked at #12 and #15, respectively).
In the midst of taping episodes for the 1973–74 season, Redd Foxx walked off the show in a salary dispute. In 1974, Foxx was earning $19,000 per episode. His character was written out of the series for the rest of the season. The continuity of the show explained that Fred Sanford was away in St. Louis attending his cousin's funeral and leaving his friend Grady (Whitman Mayo) in charge of the business. NBC sued Foxx and as part of the settlement, Foxx later returned. Foxx had taped 18 of that season's 24 episodes before Fred "left for St. Louis." The show was still quite popular when it was cancelled in 1977.
Sanford and Son was a ratings hit through its six-season run on NBC. Despite airing in the Friday night death slot, it managed to peak at #2 in the ratings (behind All in the Family).
Spin-offs and 1980–81 revival
After the series was canceled in 1977, a short-lived continuation featuring the supporting characters titled Sanford Arms aired. Whitman Mayo starred in a spin-off series, Grady, during the 1975–76 season.
In 1980–81, Foxx attempted to revive the show with the short-lived Sanford, but Demond Wilson refused to reprise his role as Lamont Sanford for the new series.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released all six seasons of Sanford and Son on Region 1 DVD between August 2002 and June 2005, with a Complete Series box set following in 2008.