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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Stubborn, argumentative, and sarcastic. Not exactly the kind of endearing qualities that create a connection between a television character and audiences. But that's precisely why millions tuned into a fictional inter-city junkman.

(Soundbite of "Sanford and Son" theme song)

CHIDEYA: Today, as part of NPR's series "In Character," a look at the fictional American characters that have had an impact on our lives, we take a closer look at Fred Sanford. A warning to our listeners, we'll be hearing clips from the show that contain language that includes racial epithets.

TONY COX: It was the winter of 1972 when "Sanford and Son" was introduced to America's primetime TV audience on NBC.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Mr. REDD FOXX (Actor): (As Fred Sanford) Hello, is this the Ace plumbing company? Yeah, well this is Fred Sanford. That's Sanford. S-A-N-F-O-R-D period speaking.

COX: Comedian Redd Foxx was cast by producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin to play the gruff, 65-year-old curmudgeon, Fred Sanford. With his trademark suspenders, gravely voice and scraggly beard, Sanford lived in a Watts junkyard with his son, Lamont, played by Demond Wilson.

Fred's intimate and often emotional interaction with Lamont offered a slice of black family life rarely seen on network television at the time. Bud Yorkin.

Mr. BUD YORKIN (Producer, "Sanford and Son"): The character between the son and the father was very interesting to me and to Norman in the sense that, despite the fact that they lived together and complained and so forth, what was interesting to me was the fact that they couldn't live without each other. And so that's what we based the idea on.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) How'd you like one of them to cross your lip?

COX: The idea for the show was actually based on a British television comedy about two London junkmen called "Steptoe and Son," but with one major difference. Both Fred and Lamont were black.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Mr. DEMOND WILSON (Actor): (As Lamont Sanford) All right. Now we've gotten rid of this stuff and everything's been taken care of. You happy?

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) Happy. I've got a truckload of copper at the bottom of the ocean. I'm out of 40 bucks, and I'm sitting here with my dummy son. I didn't know a black man could be so happy.

COX: That created challenges and opportunities for Fred and the rest of the show's cast to break new and sometimes controversial ground. Black audiences were crucial for the show's credibility, but white audiences had to embrace Fred Sanford if the show was to succeed.

Mr. YORKIN: You can't do a show that's dealing with Afro-Americans that the Afro-Americans don't like and don't want. And you don't want to do it so that just the Afro-Americans love it, but the other people don't want to see it. So you have to go in between.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Mr. WILSON: (As Lamont Sanford) Hey, pops. How you feeling this morning?

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) I feel with my hand, like I always did.

COX: Fred Sanford's wit, down-home honesty, and sometimes acerbic comments were a hint of the actor who played him. Prior to his role on "Sanford and Son," Redd Foxx was an established nightclub performer, famous for his adult humor.

Mr. FOXX: Here's a guy who went to the doctor, he said, "Doc, lookie here." The doc said, "You ever had that before?" He said, "U-huh." Doc said, "Well, you've got it again."

COX: As Fred Sanford, he toned down his humor for television, but according to show writer Paul Mooney, he toned it down only so far.

Mr. PAUL MOONEY (Writer, "Sanford and Son"): Redd Foxx's character was too arrogant, too uppity. The things that he did and said, please. He could get lynched for less in Mississippi. Now let's not try to be naive.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Mr. WILSON: (As Lamont Sanford) I'm driving along a street in Hollywood, see. All of a sudden, there's this woman standing out by the curb, messing around in the trash cans in front of her house.

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) White woman?

Mr. WILSON: (As Lamont Sanford) Yeah. Pop, this woman was about 90 years old.

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) Ain't nothing on earth uglier than a 90-year-old white woman.

Mr. MOONEY: It was written to be undignified.

COX: Black television historian and author Fred MacDonald says while "Sanford and Son" was groundbreaking, it was also dangerously reminiscent of the crude and unsophisticated African-American characters portrayed on the 1950s television show, "Amos 'n Andy." The difference, MacDonald says, is that, "Fred Sanford successfully tiptoed the line between minstrelsy and mainstream comedy.

Mr. FRED MACDONALD (Black Television Historian, Author): He was always attacking, slashing, a little bit out of control and scheming. So in that regards, you could put him in the line with a character such as George "Kingfish" Stevens from "Amos 'n Andy." But, at the end, he was offset by the positive characters around him, and that balanced it.

COX: Characters like Aunt Esther, Fred's Bible-toting sister-in-law, played by LaWanda Page, who gave as good as she got.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Ms. LAWANDA PAGE (Actress): (As Aunt Esther) Ah-ha!

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) Where'd you come from?

Ms. PAGE: (As Aunt Esther) Where you think I come from?

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) Under a rock.

Ms. PAGE: (As Aunt Esther) You can't talk yourself out of this one, you two-timing, beady-head, weasel-eyed fool.

COX: Like Norman Lear's seminal 1970s sitcom "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son" also tackled taboo topics. In this clip, Fred takes on a prejudicial justice system with his distinct homespun philosophy and language.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) Why don't you arrest some white drivers?

Unidentified Actor: I do.

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) You do? Well, where are they? Look at all these niggers in here. Look around here, there's enough niggers in here to make a Tarzan movie.

COX: "Sanford and Son" producer Bud Yorkin remembers Redd Foxx campaigning to use the "n" word in that episode.

Mr. YORKIN: He said, let me do that stuff. I want to be able to say that. And I said, well, you know, I don't feel comfortable with it. But if you... He said, I can do it, you can't do it. I don't want somebody else doing it, but I can do it. So I said, well, OK, Redd, and he did it. And, by and large, we never got any complaints.

COX: Indeed. The show's blend of comedy and controversy lasted for 135 episodes over six seasons. For five of those seasons, "Sanford and Son" was among the country's top 10 rated television shows.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Unidentified Actor: You know what I've decided to do? I'm going to do missionary work. Probably be going to Africa. I'll be doing work among your people.

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) Not mine. My people are in St. Louis.

COX: Today, Fred Sanford is still wobbling around his junkyard on arthritic knees via syndication, 36 years after his network debut. But what draws younger viewers and old fans to the little junkyard in Watts week after week? The junkman who ran it, says Bud Yorkin.

Mr. YORKIN: You felt more for him than you did for his son. After all, his son was young, and you didn't want to hear him complain to the father and (unintelligible) and I had a date tonight and you bring in three guys that want to sit down and play poker with you. Well, how can you do that to me, dad? We get into a whole scene, well, you feel sorry for the father more than you do for the son. But there's no doubt that they loved that character.

(Soundbite from TV show "Sanford and Son")

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the best-dressed man of all? Give me my answer and make me contented. Make it quick, 'cause this suit is rented.

COX: Tony Cox, NPR News.

CHIDEYA: That was the latest installment of NPR's "In Character" series, and we want to know what great American characters inspire you? Nominate your favorites on our "In Character" blog. Go to npr.org/incharacter.

(Soundbite of music)

That's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our website, nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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