"Sanford & Son" has a lot in common with "All in the Family." Both shows were retooled British sitcoms ("Steptoe and Son" and "Till Death Do Us Part") that Norman Lear produced. Both featured a cranky, racist, older blue-collar philosophizing patriarch (Fred G. Sanford and Archie Bunker), who sparred with a younger, hipper, and more politically sensitive man (son Lamont Sanford and son-in-law Michael Stivic). Both were shot like stage plays, with the actors feeling like "players" whose every entrance generated applause from the studio audience. And both were hugely successful.
Though it never raked in the Emmys that "All in the Family" did--no doubt because the characters and situations were played more over-the-top, with more caricatures and less serious issues--"Sanford & Son" was just as popular, finishing in the Nielsen Top-10 every year it was telecast between 1972-77. Part of the attraction was comedian Redd Foxx, who, along with fellow nightclub comic Moms Mabley, had reputations and record albums that made them the undisputed king and queen of raunchy stand-up comedy. By contrast, "Sanford & Son" was pretty wholesome, but the Foxx mystique made viewers tune in just to hear what irreverent things might come out of his mouth--as in the pilot, when he told Lamont, "Ain't nothin' in this world uglier than a 90-year-old white woman."
Demond Wilson played the younger Sanford and pretty much held to his second-banana role throughout the six-year run. There were tender moments between them, but mostly there was plenty of verbal abuse, with Fred's default "You big dummy" resonating from episode to episode as Lamont's get-them-out-of-the-ghetto schemes failed one after the other. Ironically, in reality the show ended because of Wilson's demands for more money than the producers were willing to pay him after Foxx left the show, making the sixth season the show's last.
Unlike Lamont, NBC was no dummy. Where's the appeal in "& Son"? Make no mistake about it, this was Foxx's show, and the comedian held court week after week. Though Foxx was ten years younger than the character he played, he had the 65-year-old Sanford shuffle down to a tee, as well as his character's signature reaction to shock and fallback if he needed to deflect attention from his mischief: a faked heart attack and his heavenward monologue, "I'm comin', Elizabeth, I'm comin' to join you."
Foxx, who received another Golden Globe nomination, was still on his game during the show's final season, even if the writers were running out of things to do with a 65-year-old Los Angeles junkman and his thirtysomething unmarried son. And "Sanford & Son" still finished in the #7 spot.
Each of the Sanfords had their own cadre of friends. With Fred, it was a couple of fellow comedians: Melvin (Slappy White), who was soon replaced by Grady (Whitman Mayo) and Bubba (Don Bexley). With Lamont, it was his Latino pal Julio (Gregory Sierra, "Barney Miller") and the jive-talking Rollo (Nathaniel Taylor). It wasn't enough to just talk smack about white people. A few of them had to be brought in so Fred could react to them, and what white people would poke around a Watts junkyard during the Seventies . . . except for cops? The fun at the clueless white cops' expense began with Officer Swanhauser (Noam Pitlik), whose black partner "Smitty" had a better grasp of the black reality. Later it was Officer Hopkins, whom Fred dubbed "Happy" (Howard Platt). But Lear and Foxx both had a history of being equal opportunity lampooners, and much of the comic relief also resulted from a Bible-toting, Hallelujah! sister--the Sanford's Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page), who's verbal jousting with Fred often escalated into mutual shadow boxing and threats of physical violence. Aunt Esther used her Bible for her shield, and her purse for her sword, and her fiery scenes were usually as brief as they were combustible.
Over the course of the show's six seasons, it was inevitable that the these Odd Couple bachelors would hook up with female companions, and for two seasons near the show's end he dated and became engaged to a single mother named Janet (Marlene Clark). Fred, meanwhile, had the longest-running relationship in Donna (Lynn Hamilton), a nurse who had plenty of patience with the cantankerous Fred.
Though there were issues here, "Sanford and Son" was a more character-driven comedy than "All in the Family," and much of the comedy week after week came from Fred's and Lamont's foibles. In a way, they were Ricky and Lucy, or Felix and Oscar--an oil-and-water combination that somehow ended up on the same salad.
When Foxx left the show in 1977 due to prior commitments, Wilson wanted to be paid more than NBC was willing, though the unspoken subtext was that his character and storyline weren't enough to drive "Sanford and Son" without Sanford. So Wilson also left the show, and the proof that NBC was right all along was ironically delivered when the network decided to go with LaWanda Page as the main character in "The Sanford Arms" spin-off. That show was a bust, but Wilson got some vindication when Foxx tried to revive the show without him in 1980, and it was also a failure. Turns out, it took both "Sanford and Son" after all to make this show click with viewers.
All 136 episodes from the show's six seasons are included in this compact, bargain-priced set ($59.95). As with previous "Complete Series" packages from Sony, this one features a single box with flap that has the episodes listed on it and houses a thin plastic spindle insert, upon which the discs are stacked--the way that DVD-Rs are stacked when you buy them in bulk. It's really perfect for fans who HAVE to have their favorite TV shows in their home libraries, but maybe won't be watching them frequently. Yes, there's more risk of bobbling the discs when they're stacked like this, but Sony is issuing their TV-on-DVD sets in uniform packaging that takes up a fraction of the shelf-space that the individual releases (just 1 ½ inches at the spine). Each single season lists at $29.95, and when you multiply that times six it'd cost you almost $180 list. No one pays list anymore, but still . . . .
Like the rest of the Lear comedies, "Sanford & Son" hasn't aged well. The picture is hazy, the colors washed out, and the frequent practice of photographing with a sharp-focus figure and soft-focus background doesn't translate well to widescreen televisions. If you stretch the 1.33:1 image to 4:3 "enhanced" mode, the picture gets even fuzzier. But it's the result of the master, not the transfer, and once you get used to the level of quality it's not a distraction.
Though the soundtrack is listed as Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, it's not a dynamic sound. There's a flatness to it, and also some hiss in some of the seasons.
No bonus features.
"Sanford and Son" had more slapstick than "All in the Family" and it never tackled issues with the same thoughtfulness, but it gave an equal-time irascible voice to the people Archie Bunker constantly berated, and that was cathartic. Foxx was a brilliant comedian, and he has as much fun with this character as any of his stand-up personas. At any other time, the show probably wouldn't have fared any better than its post-production offspring or "Grady," a failed spin-off that was attempted while "S&S" was still on the air. But for the Seventies, "Sanford & Son" was a perfect fit, and for all its shortcomings, the charismatic Foxx still makes it worth watching more than 30 years later.