As big breaks go, few come bigger than landing the lead role in a major situation comedy series. For comedian Redd Foxx, that break came in the form of the much-beloved `70's show, "Sanford and Son." In "Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story," Michael Seth Starr explains how Foxx made the transition from stand-up comedian to major television star. Here's an excerpt.
Casting an Americanized version of "Steptoe and Son" proved to be more of a challenge than [Norman] Lear and [Bud] Yorkin bargained for. With Lear focusing most of his attention on "All in the Family," Yorkin brought in sitcom veteran Aaron Ruben ("The Phil Silvers Show," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.") to help develop "Steptoe." The problem was, they just couldn’t find the right combination of actors to play the bickering, yet loving, father and son—and they couldn’t decide on the characters’ ethnicity. Initially, the show was going to be set in New York. “Mainly, we had in mind Jewish or Italian actors, since most of the junk peddlers in New York are of that origin,” Ruben said. “But we couldn’t find the right characters—those wonderful old-timers are all gone, and you’re not going to bring [Jimmy] Cagney out of retirement, either.”
Yorkin and Ruben spent several months in mid-1971 shooting several "Steptoe" pilots with different sets of actors. One version featured Lee Tracy and Aldo Ray as father and son; in another version, veteran stage actor Barnard Hughes played the Irish father and Paul Sorvino his son, who favored his mother’s Italian heritage. Bardu Ali later claimed that Stepin Fetchit and Flip Wilson filmed a "Steptoe" pilot, but there’s no record of that ever occurring. Yorkin and Ruben did approach Cleavon Little, who had a small role in "Cotton Comes to Harlem," to gauge his interest in shooting a pilot. Little was interested, but had other commitments to fulfill, so he recommended someone he thought would be perfect for the role of the curmudgeonly father: Redd Foxx.
“We were either going to get Italian, Jewish, or Black … we tested a lot of people and we couldn’t find anybody that I really thought was great, that could do it,” Yorkin said. “We auditioned a lot of good actors but they just weren’t built for that character. And then I caught 'Cotton Comes to Harlem' and right away I said, ‘There’s the guy: Redd Foxx.’”
There he was, hiding in plain sight. Why hadn’t anyone thought of it before? Redd was the perfect casting choice. Although Ruben’s script for the "Steptoe" pilot was, in his words, written for a “faceless character”—giving the producers the option of plugging in whichever ethnic group they eventually decided upon—the role was tailor-made for Redd Foxx. His Uncle Bud character in "Cotton Comes to Harlem" was, after all, a junkman, and while Redd didn’t have a son in real life, he could certainly mix it up with the best of them. A large part of his on stage persona was built on his audience banter and his lightning-quick zingers to hecklers, which harkened all the way back to Redd’s teen days playing “the dozens” and one-upping his buddies in the 58th Street Gang. Even Redd’s croaking, gravelly voice was perfect; hardened by years of cigarettes, booze, cocaine, and marijuana, it was the voice of a much older man. “Believe me, he lived hard,” Yorkin said. “He was gray, and the way he walked on the show was pretty much the way he walked in real life. He had beaten himself up too much.” That made the problem of Redd’s age a relatively minor one; he was only forty-eight at the time, while Ruben’s “faceless” father character was sixty-five. But it was nothing that some hair dye couldn’t solve.
Redd, though, was still focused on his cooking show, and was in Las Vegas performing at the Hilton, far away from Hollywood. He knew nothing about what was going on behind-the-scenes after Yorkin and Rubin called Bardu Ali, asking him if Redd would be interested in shooting the "Steptoe" pilot. Without telling him about the offer, Ali called Redd’s attorney, James Tolbert, and set up a three-way call with himself, Yorkin, and Tolbert to discuss the script. When Ali finally called him in Vegas to tell him about the offer, Redd was disappointed. What about the cooking show? Ali told him that, if this 'Steptoe' project didn’t work out, the cooking show would be their top priority. “That made him feel better,” he said. “At least I thought it did.”
Privately, though, Redd was thrilled at the prospect of starring in a network television show, and said as much when he flew to Los Angeles to meet Bud Yorkin. “He came in and I said, ‘How would you like to do a television show?’ He said he would love it,” Yorkin recalled. He said, ‘I’ve never been behind the doors of any of the different companies that were making movies, I’ve never seen none of it.’ I said, ‘Let me ask you a question. Are you willing to come up here, work with me? We’ll do the show and we’ll see if the network will pick it up. We’re going to have to do the whole first show, you’re going to have to memorize it, you’ll have to learn it and then we’re going to do it.
“I said, ‘It’s going to be two people that can’t live with each other, and have to be together. They love each other but there are times they can’t get together, like any father and son relationship. He said, ‘I’ll do anything, I’ll take my teeth out if you want me to.’” And that’s how it really started.”
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With Redd on board, Yorkin and Ruben needed to find his co-star. Bardu Ali later recalled that Ruben and Cleavon Little flew out to Redd’s house in Las Vegas, so Little could read for the role of Redd’s son. But that’s likely an apocryphal story, since Little had already turned down the opportunity (before recommending Redd). Little was however, laterally involved in Yorkin and Norman Lear’s decision to look in their own creative backyard and tap an actor named Demond Wilson to read for the role of the Steptoe son.
The twenty-four-year old Wilson, a Vietnam veteran, was born Grady Demond Wilson in Valdosta, Georgia, and was already a show-biz veteran by the time he met Redd Foxx. He’d appeared in several Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and in a small role on the CBS series Mission: Impossible. In 1971, he co-starred in the movie The Organization; later that year, he and Cleavon Little were cast in an episode of "All in the Family" as a pair of burglars who break into Archie Bunker’s house. Wilson’s performance in that episode caught Yorkin and Lear’s attention, and they dispatched Aaron Ruben to meet with Wilson in Los Angeles and offer him the chance to read for the role opposite Redd. “After learning about the series format, I was doubtful about my involvement in the project,” Wilson said. “I thought about it long and hard and decided to take a chance. Redd and I thought we could grab some quick cash, plus notoriety, then move onto the next project.”
From "Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story" © 2011 by Michael Seth Starr. Published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. Reprinted with permission
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive