In the eyes of most of America, and certainly most of white America, Redd Foxx was an “overnight sensation,” materializing on television in 1972 at age 49 as the bow-legged, chest-clutching junk man Fred Sanford on the hit NBC sit-com, “Sanford and Son.”
But, as biographer Michael Seth Starr recounts in “Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story” (Applause Books, $27.99), Foxx arrived on the set of “Sanford and Son” as a street-smart, natural-born comic, who, through sheer talent, guile and unbridled self confidence, overcame a life of poverty in the slums of St. Louis to make his mark on three entertainment genres: stand-up comedy, recorded nightclub comedy, and, finally, television.(Dec. 9, 1922 – Oct. 11, 1991),
With the 1956 release of “Laff of the Party,” Foxx was crowned “King of the Party Records,” and while his frank, trailblazing style opened the door for generations of African-American comedians, including Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, it did little for his own career. Shielded from mainstream (that is white) audiences both by the color of his skin and his refusal to tone down his ribald act, Foxx eventually clawed his way up the show business ladder, breaking through in Las Vagas and New York and appearing in a few films before the first episode of “Sanford and Son” changed his life completely. Foxx took the country by storm in January 1972 as crotchety Watts junk dealer Fred Sanford (Foxx’s actual name was John Elroy Sanford) and was propelled to become one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history. Fred’s histrionic “heart attacks” (“It’s the big one, Elizabeth! I’m comin’ to join ya, honey!”) and catchphrases (“You big dummy!”) turned Fred Sanford into a cultural icon and Redd Foxx into a millionaire.
The show took Foxx to the pinnacle of television success, but it also proved to be his downfall. In 1977, Foxx left “Sanford and Son,” after six highly successful seasons (and the show was canceled solely due to his departure) to star in a short-lived variety show, but by 1980 he was back playing Fred G. Sanford in a brief revival/spin-off, “Sanford.” The veteran comedian would come to define his post-“Sanford and Son” years with a blur of women, cocaine, endless lawsuits, financial chaos and a losing battle with the IRS. Foxx appeared to be making a comeback with the 1991 series “The Royal Family,” in which he co-starred with his long-time friend, Della Reese, when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Foxx, who was 68 years old when he died, reportedly owed more than $3.6 million in taxes.
Based on Starr’s interviews with dozens of Foxx’s friends, confidantes and colleagues, this biography provides unique insight into this venerable performer — a man television producer Norman Lear describes as “inherently, innately funny in every part of his being.”