Notorious for his frank, tell-it-like-it-is style, Redd Foxx broke new ground for minorities and comedians alike. By joking about everything from sex to color barriers, he brought simmering and taboo issues into the open. His candor onstage not only jump-started what is now considered a war with censors, but also inspired and enabled other comedians to achieve more than had ever been possible. Foxx was not only “The King of Comedy,” but also a talented artist. He took a sketchbook with him whenever possible, and enjoyed creating his own fantastic images or capturing the essence of those whom he loved or admired.
John Elroy Sanford was born into poverty in St. Louis on December 9, 1922. With a ruddy complexion, Redd fast became a nickname. He derived Foxx from admirable Major League Baseball player, Jimmie Foxx. He left St. Louis for Chicago when he was 13, and supported himself by playing the washboard in a band. When the band broke up three years later, he hopped a train to New York City. It was there that he met Malcolm Little, a man who would later be known as Malcolm X. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he is referred to as “Chicago Red, the funniest dishwasher on this earth.”
Foxx began performing as a comedian/actor in black theaters and nightclubs, often referred to as the “Chitlin Circuit.” From 1951-1955 he teamed with comic Slappy White, a lifelong friend who would also act alongside him on Sanford and Son and The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour. While he was performing in Los Angeles, he was offered a deal with the Dooto record label. Foxx received $25 for his first recording. In the years to follow he would produce over 50 comedic albums. During the 1960s, as cultural barriers began to wear down, Foxx’s audience grew steadily. In 1972, after his film debut in Ossie Davis’ Cotton Comes to Harlem, Norman Lear signed Foxx as junk dealer Fred Sanford in a new NBC sitcom.
Sanford and Son, which co-starred Demond Wilson and Lawanda Page, was a big hit. So big, in fact, that it ranked in the top ten virtually every week it aired. At one point NBC even ran the show twice a week. When Foxx left in 1977, it was reportedly because NBC wouldn’t give him a dressing room with a window. Closer to the truth, however, might have been the generous salary offered to him by ABC. In an effort to weaken NBC’s powerhouse Friday line-up, ABC was determined to lure away the Sanford and Son star. It worked.
NBC’s ratings dropped continuously. Meanwhile, Foxx launched his own show, The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour. He was executive producer of the program, which first aired on September 15, 1977, and cast him alongside Sarah Hardy, Slappy White, “Iron Jaw” Wilson, Billy Barty, Hal Smith, Bill Saluga and The Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Foxx was excited about the variety show’s open forum, and planned to take full advantage of the opportunity. “I’ll be doing anything that can possibly be different from what’s been done before.” He said. “I’ll be doing skits, bits, obnoxious things.. I might do Romeo and Juliet with a gorilla.” In keeping with the show’s tone, during the introduction a list of guest stars that would not appear on the program was read. Real guest stars included comedian Andy Kaufman and Bob Einstein’s “Super Dave Osborne” character.
During the first episode, well aware that he was infamous for a special brand of comedic routines, he joked, “The only thing I can do from my nightclub act is smoke.” Foxx took live questions from the audience during his monologue, demonstrating his clever and on-the-ball wit. The program’s undisciplined nature made it extremely adventurous for the 1970s, and challenged both the audience and the censors to speculate what would transpire next. Nevertheless, having only been interested in hindering NBC’s progress, ABC wasn’t concerned with how Foxx faired at their network. The show was cancelled on January 26, 1978.
Foxx then took to Las Vegas, where he instantly became a headliner. He enjoyed performing there, and continued even while he launched another sitcom for ABC. On “The Redd Foxx Show,” he played Al Hughes, a likeable, friendly newsstand owner. The cast was a mix of former co-stars, including “Iron Jaw” Wilson, and new faces, such as Nathaniel “Rollo” Taylor, Barry Van Dyke, and Beverly Todd. The show did not fare well with audiences, however, and when production was terminated, Foxx left ABC for good.
In 1989, he and long-time friend Della Reese co-starred in Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights. Though the movie itself received little attention, critics took notice of the pair’s performance. CBS jumped and signed the two for a new sitcom, The Royal Family.
Sadly, while on the set of The Royal Family, Foxx suffered a massive heart attack. Reese bent over him and prayed, “Don’t die Redd, don’t die,” but it was too late. The world lost comedic genius Redd Foxx on October 11, 1991. Foxx’s albums stand as proof of his legacy as they continue to sell, topping out at over 15 million copies sold.