Basically, there’s only one real problem on Sanford and Son. But, it is serious and we deal with it every day. It comes in the form of a question that everyone asks first thing in the morning.
“Is Redd here?”
And if he is, “How’s he feeling?”
Redd Foxx likes cocaine and marijuana, is a chain cigarette smoker, loves to late night party and hates to rehearse. He will not show up at least one day a week, often two, sometimes three. And when he does come in, he’s frequently groggy, hoarse, sometimes barely able to speak. If you watch the old reruns, you can tell by his voice what went on the night (or weekend or week) before.
It is testament to the patience and people skills of the producers, Saul Turtletaub and Bernie Orenstein that we manage to get a show taped every week - and that it is as good as it is. Redd’s immense talent manages to overcome most of his evils, but I’ve often wondered how great this series might have been if he (and others in the cast) hadn’t been high so much of the time.
Tonight is our Bon Voyage party. Garry Shandling (who knows I am a shaky flyer), has brought a cake with a toy jetliner crashed into the frosting.
I’ve already told everyone at Sanford and Son that I’m not returning as head writer for a third season. That’s right; I’m walking away from one of the most beloved, successful situation comedies in television history at the height of its popularity. I’ve also turned down offers to write and produce either Grady or The Sanford Arms, both which will turn out to be unsuccessful spin offs of Sanford and Son. Two days ago in the NBC commissary I was introduced to a young producer, Dick Ebersol. Dick is putting together an innovative, late night comedy show called, Saturday Night Live and wants to know if I’m interested.
I say no thanks. I’m going to Europe with my girlfriend and I don’t know when I'll be back.
We’ve bought a new, bright red, ’76 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible and will be picking it up in Munich. I’m uneasy about this trip. I’m coming off a mammoth hit show and suddenly I’m this comedy writing genius that everybody wants to throw money at. I’m worried that if I go away, all that will too.
Kathy thinks not. She says now is the time, when we have the youth, the money and the freedom. She believes walking away like this will only add élan and mystique to my persona, make me even more in demand when I return. She will be right.
There’s another subtle, more insidious reason that prompts me to go. I’m not even aware of it until the end of this article. So, we’ll talk about it then.
Esther, you’ve broken one of the commandments.
Yeah? Which one?
Thou shalt not covet Godzilla’a face.
Two years earlier, a simple, but fortuitous incident leads to all this.
I am leaving my apartment to go down to the little corner market for an ice-cream bar. I’ve been struggling to come up with a story idea for my spec. Sanford and Son script, so I’ll do anything to avoid sitting in front of the typewriter.
Waiting at the elevator are my new neighbors; two Japanese girls who are opening a restaurant just down the street. The subject of Japanese food provides the catalyst for the Sanford and Son story that has eluded me.
This spec script can’t be just good, it has to blow them away. I haven’t had a steady writing job in almost two years and I’m now pushing thirty four. I have about two months before I run out of money and either hang myself or go sell real estate.
In the seventies, the Japanese were the Arabs and Chinese of today. They had gobs of money and were snapping up properties and businesses all over the US. My story will be about a Japanese company trying to buy up all the houses on Fred Sanford’s block in Watts in order to build a brewery - and Fred is the lone holdout.
I finish the script and turn it over to my new agent at ICM, Helen Kushnick. At this stage of my career, Helen is perfect for me. She is ruthless, cutthroat, has a killer instinct. Rumor is, when she had surgery to remove an ulcer, they also found the head of a sea turtle, two small tuna and an old license plate in her stomach. But Helen is fiercely loyal, and as long as the ass she’s kicking is not mine, go get ‘em! She will eventually represent talents like Jimmie Walker, Elayne Boosler, David Letterman and Jay Leno.
A week later, Helen calls, tells me Sanford and Son loved my script, wants to buy it and I’m getting all the money, over five grand!
I soon meet with the Sanford producers, Saul Turtletaub and Bernie Orenstein for rewrite notes. Two weeks later I get the second fairy tale phone call of my career. They were so impressed with my rewrite that I’m being offered a job on staff!
Esther, go into the kitchen, stick your head
in the freezer and make me an Uglysicle.
Saul and Bernie are the best producers I will ever work with. Here, I am allowed the freedom and creativity to put my stamp on the show. In the next two seasons I will be credited for writing eleven episodes of Sanford and Son and almost completely rewrite a dozen more.
Yes, there were better sitcoms before and after Sanford and Son. But, for its time the show certainly was brave. I don’t think Redd Foxx ever thought of himself as heroic, but his character of Fred Sanford wasn’t hesitant to find humor in social and racial injustices. Keep in mind this is only a decade removed from attack dogs, fire hoses and three young civil rights workers being murdered in Mississippi. And, whatever its place in television history, there’s no doubt that Sanford and Son is special to African Americans. I’ve had countless black people tell me how much they loved and still love the show.
I’ve been asked many times how can a white guy write for black people? My best answer is that I just wrote what I thought was funny and let the cast decide if it was acceptable. A good example of this is a joke I wrote for my spec script. The episode was supposed to open with Fred and Grady playing a board game. Fred is rolling the dice when Lamont enters and asks what they’re doing.
FRED Were playing Monopoly.
LAMONT Monopoly? That's a kid's game.
FRED Yeah, but where else can a black man
own hotels, railroads, power companies,
plus a card that lets you outa jail free?
The joke gets a huge laugh when it’s first read around the table, but is immediately cut. Redd says that black people don’t play Monopoly. So, maybe it was all those Soul food dinners I consumed on the set. Beats me...
Because so many positive things come together for me on this show, it’s not surprising I get off to a fast start. Monday morning, my very first day, all the cast and crew are seated around a big table, the script for this week’s episode in front of us. I’ve already read the script, made notes; I’m excited, nervous and primed. This first reading is to give us an idea of what shape the script is in. I also get lucky because Redd rarely shows up on a Monday.
About ten minutes into the script we come to a scene where Lamont, trying to be urbane, gives Fred an unusual birthday present, an exotic piece of fruit. Fred looks at it, disappointed, says, “What is it?” Lamont answers, “It’s a Papaya.” The script indicates “Fred reacts.” That’s it. As they read it, a line occurs to me and perhaps because of all the adrenalin, I just blurt out, “Fine. Where’s my pa, pa present?” It’s not protocol; you’re supposed to wait for the rewrite meeting after. But, it gets a good laugh around the table and an approving wink from Bernie.
Esther, do me a favor?
Next time you go to the grocery, tell
the bag boy to put one over your head.
From that day, I knew I was going to do well. Unlike Smothers Brothers and The Jonathan Winters Show where I sometimes struggled to find my voice, here the producers encourage me to say what’s on my mind. Yeah, I know, with me that’s like giving a four year old an Uzi.
Even if your stars aren’t doing drugs, writing/working in series television can be grueling. There is a pervasive macho concept in television production that the later at night you stay up to work on the script, the better the show will be. Think about that for a moment. Now, think about it at two in the morning. Case closed.
However, there is enormous pressure to make these shows succeed. Often, the producer is the creator and has a percentage of the profits. If the series stays on the air for several years, long enough to go into syndication (and later CDs) the financial rewards are stupefying. So, it isn’t surprising that the mind set is to work yourself and everybody around you like the Pharaoh is dying and you’re trying to finish his freakin’ pyramid.
On Sanford and Son (and most sitcoms) we have a five day production week for each episode. We start with the first draft script reading on Monday morning and end with the two tapings on Friday night. Monday mornings and Friday nights are the most fun for me. Mondays, even if my name isn’t on the script as the accredited writer, I almost always have made a significant rewriting contribution. However, even if I wind up rewriting 100% of somebody else’s script, unless we also completely change the story, the WGA dictates the original writer gets the “written by” credit. (And the resultant residual) So, basically, when I’m not writing my own script, I am the in-house, handy man joke fixer.
FRED Esther, you're the only woman should use toilet paper to wipe her face. (This one didn't make it on air, but almost made Redd fall out of his chair.)
Redd Foxx rarely shows up on Monday. If he doesn’t come in on Tuesday, we start to get uneasy. Tuesday afternoon is the first important rehearsal of the week, the actors walking and talking through the show, scripts still in their hands, lines not yet memorized. However, this rehearsal is also when the director begins blocking the show. Fundamentally, blocking is choreographing the movements of the actors. This has to be intricately planned in advance so the performers don’t bump into each other and the cameras don’t miss anything. This rehearsal is also the first opportunity for the actors to work with each other in sequence and begin to get their timing down. Over half the time, Redd does not show up on Tuesday. By Wednesday, there’s only three days left before the show is taped before an audience. Wednesday afternoons’ rehearsal is called the “Dry Run Thru.” (no cameras.) This rehearsal is crucial because tonight will be the last opportunity for us to make any extensive changes. Wednesday night is rewrite night and any new material has to be in the script by Thursday morning. We consider ourselves lucky if Redd shows up on Wednesdays. But, even if he does, it is not unusual for him and others in the cast to be high on coke or weed, giggling through the rehearsal like teenagers.
Wednesday nights is also when I discover I am good in a room.
Tonight is the rewrite night of my original spec script. It’s already after ten and we’re still struggling to come up with this one last fix. It’s an exit line, so it’s important. When the Japanese real estate lady is leaving the Sanford home, she says, “Sayonara.” Fred is supposed to reply, “Never saw the movie” (If you’re frowning, Sayonara was a Marlon Brando movie back in 1957, but an old reference even then.) The so-called joke won’t, hasn’t worked all week. In frustration, Bernie keeps muttering, “Sayonara, sayonara, sayonara.” I have no idea where it comes from, but I answer, “And Frank Sinatra to you too.”
I make it home in time for Johnny Carson.
ESTHER I'm not feelin' well. Is here some place I can lie down?
Yeah, try the fast lane of the freeway.
Thursday is camera blocking day in the set at NBC, Burbank. Again, especially in comedy, blocking is crucial. This is when the camera shots are laid out by the director. Even if something as seemingly minor as a gesture or facial expression is missed, the audience at home won’t see it and laughs are lost. In reality, the living room set on Sanford and Son isn’t much bigger than an average apartment bedroom and it is vital that every cast member know exactly where to be at every moment. By Thursday, Redd usually shows up. However, the rehearsal is frequently a disaster, and realizing we are twenty four hours away from a live audience, most of us want to go home and hide under the covers until Seinfeld is created.
Friday afternoons everybody unwinds a little, might even be a drink or two in someone’s office. We’ve done everything we can to make this show as good as it can be. Now it’s in the hands of a fifty two year old, drug addicted night club comic with an attitude.
We’ll shoot the same show twice tonight; one at five thirty, the other at eight, with a catered dinner in between. Redd insists that there’s plenty of “Soul food.” That’s okay with me, I love ribs, hot links, sweet potato pie. However, you can have the grits. I cannot see why anyone would want to eat grits. To me, this is the stuff that produced the expression, “Let’s throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.” As far as I’m concerned, you can leave it there.
Our audiences are at least half African American and tonight Redd will, for them, tell it like it is. However, his appeal isn’t limited to black people. My father is a seventy five year old conservative Jew who does not hesitate to use the derogatory Yiddish word for African American, “Schvartze” (literally, “black.”) However, he absolutely adores Redd Foxx, thinks he’s funnier than Jack Benny.
And, miracles of miracles, week after week, show after show, come Friday night, Redd Foxx undergoes an incredible transformation. Suddenly, this man who has been mumbling, sleepwalking all week, is razor sharp, energetic, charming and…hilarious! It defies logic and every show business axiom. And the audiences love him, shouting his name, laughing, stomping their feet. We see this and we shake our heads and smile. For Redd, the audience is the good drug.
Esther, every time I look at you I feel like
Yeah. Who Let The Dogs Out?! Who Let The Dogs
El Segundo is a small town a few miles south of Los Angeles International Airport. It is mostly a blue collar community, home to a refinery and dozens of storage tanks of various nefarious chemicals. On the freeway, everybody knows when they’re passing El Segundo because someone in the car will jokingly say, “Wasn’t me!”
Halfway through the eight o’clock taping, there’s a technical problem and we have to stop. It’s going to take a few minutes, so Redd walks out to the audience and without preamble, says:
“This couple is necking in the car and it’s starting to get hot and heavy, they’re really steamin’ up the windows. Finally, the girl starts panting and moaning and says. ‘Oh honey, oh baby, kiss me! Kiss me where it smells!’
A perfectly timed pause, then Redd says:
“So, he drove her to El Segundo.”
A few weeks later, we’re taping the “Fred Recalls His Army Days” episode. In this particular scene, Fred and Lamont are American spies, captured by the Nazis and expecting at any moment to be interrogated by the Gestapo. Instead, in walks Pat Morita as a Japanese officer. Fred is surprised the “Japanese officer” speaks such good English. MORITA
Not so surprising, I was educated in your
No, University of El Segundo.
Pat Morita started his career as a stand up comic and often opened for Redd on the road. Red, always supportive of his friends, one day asks me to come up with a way to use Morita on the show. Thus, Lamont’s friend, Ah Chew is created. Pat’s debut on Sanford and Son was also Garry Shandling’s first writing credit. It turned out to be a good push in the back for both of them.
One Friday afternoon, Redd pops into my office. He and some of the cast are playing Liar’s Poker at twenty bucks a pop. I give him what I have in my wallet, a couple of bills.
The following Monday morning we’re all at the table reading and I’m doing my usual thing, taking notes, concentrating on the script. Surprisingly, Redd has shown up and is sitting across from me. At one point he slides a bill across the table to me, says, “Thanks, Mustache” (This is his nickname for me, prompted by my drooping, seventies style mustache.) I’m working on a joke, so I pay scant attention, just stuff the bill in my shirt pocket and forget about it.
The script is in pretty good shape, so I get to drive home late in the afternoon on this beautiful spring day. However, things quickly go south when I get lit up by a Highway Patrol cruiser and dutifully pull over to the side of the freeway.
My dad always taught me if stopped by a cop, get out of the car , walk back and use your people skills to chat with the guy, try to talk him out of the ticket. (Do not attempt this nowadays, you may be asked to immediately recline on the freeway - but not in those words.) Anyway, after the cop checks my license and registration, he tells me I made an abrupt lane change. No big deal, he’s not going to write me up, just a warning. Relieved, I turn to walk back to my car, but bothered by the glare of the setting sun, I stop, reach into my shirt pocket and pull out my sunglasses. I also snag the bill that Redd gave me this morning, which falls to the ground. I pick it up, now noticing that it’s a hundred and twisted at each end like a piece of candy. Thank God the cop is already walking back to his cruiser and has missed this.
When I get home, Kathy and I unwrap the bill and yep, you guessed it, there’s a goodly amount of Cocaine packed inside.
Can you imagine me telling the cop, “Oh, that’s not mine, it’s a gift from Redd Foxx in return for me lending him money and I had no idea there was cocaine in there!”
An arrest, jail, possibly prison time is adverted by happenstance.
Praise the Lord! I have seen the light!
Lord, I’m lookin’ at her. Please, switch off the light!
By my second season, Sanford and Son is more popular than ever - and suddenly everybody thinks I am the latest comedy writer genius. Carsey and Werner at ABC, call, say they’re dying to work with me. Columbia Pictures Television is offering a juicy development deal. Doug Cramer, producer of shows like The Odd Couple, Mission Impossible and Dynasty, promises me the equivalent of a new Porsche if I’ll just take a rewrite pass at his sitcom pilot starring Dionne Warwick. (I am now also the genius white guy who knows how to write for blacks.)
Does all this go to my head? Of course it does!
One Friday afternoon, Redd shuffles into my office. (That unique Fred Sanford walk was actually due to Redd’s arthritic knees.) He wants to do something a little different on the show, shake things up a bit, maybe get the cast into fun costumes.
I say, hey, how about something about World War Two!?
Redd says, “Let’s do it.”
I do not tell him about The Dirty Dozen sketch I wrote over five years ago for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that never got on the air. I already have ten pages of the sketch, so by working through the weekend, on Monday I hand in a first draft teleplay.
Saul and Bernie are amazed, but I don’t tell them either. Let the legend grow! They smartly massage Redd’s ego by buying a full page ad in Daily Variety and giving him a story credit. This episode also featured Pat Morita as the lost Japanese officer and was a particularly funny and successful show.
However, an ugly incident that occurs during the taping will seal my fate and send me off to Europe.
Corky (Corrine) is a long time, treasured friend. When we were dating (well before Kathy), she was an AD (assistant director) on The Newlywed Game. One night she invites me into the booth with her for a taping of the show. The booth is a small room crammed with electronic equipment and TV monitors, where the director calls the shots to the cameramen down on the set. Corky is sitting next to the director. I’m up back in a corner, hunkered down and somewhat embarrassed because the director is being a real dick. He’s throwing hissy fits because the cameramen are allegedly missing reaction shots from some of the contestants.
Near the end of the show, the director perceives another cameraman atrocity, screams, “Fuck!” and hurls his pencil at one of the TV monitors. It ricochets off the screen, the point hitting Corky just under the eye.
This is Corky’s job and I could get her fired, so I manage to keep my mouth shut and not ask this asshole if a missed shot is worth blinding someone. Fortunately, Corky is okay, just a scratch. The director makes a token apology and I chalk it up to just another show biz dickhead taking himself too seriously.
Esther, your face could launch a thousand ships.
Why thank you, Fred...
Yeah, every one of ‘em be the Titanic.
Flash forward ten years and here I am in another booth, about to watch the second and final taping of the, “Fred Recalls His Army Days” episode. I’ve been toying with the idea of learning how to direct, so I’m sitting right behind our director.
The show opens with Redd in a General’s uniform, backed by a huge American flag, parodying the seminal scene in the hit, World War Two movie, Patton. Redd is just supposed to stand at attention, looking tough, while the voice over describes the dangerous mission that “this dedicated and brave solider” is about to lead.
It’s a completely scripted scene, except for Redd reacting, mugging to the voice over. However, now this comic genius throws us a curve which turns out to be, at least for me, one of the funniest moments in television.
Redd is still standing at attention, but as the scene progresses his pants are starting to slowly slip down. No doubt he has somehow rigged this, but he pretends he doesn’t notice, continuing to salute and look very George C. Scott like. This bit also contains the element of truth that all sight gags must have: that the heavy pistols he’s got strapped to his waist would drag his pants down.
The audience begins to notice, the laughs are starting to build and finally Redd does take action because his pants are dangerously close to dropping completely. Frantically, he tries to tug them up with one hand, still continuing to salute with the other, but it’s a losing battle. Finally, when the pants do drop, we see he’s wearing red, polka dot boxer shorts.
By now, the studio audience is hysterical, falling out of their seats.
Well, you had to be there.
No, really, you had to be there! Because the director, looking pages ahead, has his face in the script. So, without his direction the camera remains tight on Redd’s face and the majority of the pants bit is missed.
When I see this I am so angry, so furious, that I sling my pen at the monitor.
I’m glad Corky wasn’t there to see it.
A month later the season is over and I’ve quit the show. My agent, my parents, most of my friends and maybe even you, think I’m crazy. But, you all weren’t in that booth with me. Yes, later we retrieved most of the pants scene with the roving, hand held camera. But, that’s not the point.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I think I subconsciously sensed that I was in danger of becoming one of those self important show biz pricks that I loathe. I think I somehow knew that I had to get away. There are people that have to experience a heart attack to get their head on straight. I am going to try it another way.