Not Quite the Big One: 'Sanford and Son' 38 Years Later

03/26/2015 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

Thirty-eight years ago this week, Sanford and Son ended its historic television run after 136 groundbreaking episodes. The show was anchored by the incomparable Redd Foxx and then-rising-star Demond Wilson. While Sanford and Son does not hold the distinction of being the first primetime African-American television show, it's arrival signaled a turn toward a new wave of a self-authenticated black American experience presented to television audiences. Sanford and Son introduced a level of self-assuredness in tone and subject that is all over the current flood of ethnically led and focused programming. Well before Fresh Off the Boat Tuesdays, Empire/Black-ish Wednesdays or Shondaland Thursdays, Fred G. S-A-N-F-O-R-D, period and Lamont showed us their finest antiques and trinkets on Fridays.

Reaching the place where culturally aware shows were accepted and embraced right alongside their mainstream counterparts was a slow and at times a painful process.

June 28, 1951: The Columba Broadcasting System (CBS) debuted after four years in development the Amos and Andy Show staring two African-American leads. Alvin Childress played Amos and Alvin Childress was Andy. Set in Harlem, the show followed the title characters' misadventures of being misled and frequently duped out of their hard-earned money. Before its small-screen adaptation, Amos and Andy was a nightly radio program written and performed by white comedians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. The comedic duo created Amos and Andy in the minstrel show tradition leaning heavily on racist stereotypes of African-Americans and malapropos speech patterns. Taped as producers, Gosden and Correll drew sharp criticism and unrelenting protest from the outset of the television project. Still the show trudged along from 1951 through 1953 for 78 episodes ultimately succumbing to a combination of falling rates and loss of sponsors. It would take more than 15 years after the ending of Amos and Andy for the next rush of major network shows to prominently feature African-Americans.

Diahann Carroll's pioneering role in the short-lived Julia (1968) quickly followed by the Flip Wilson Show (1970) gave important exposure to significant African-American stars, but the shows from their conception, direction, and writing was done overwhelmingly by whites. Neither show was able to grain traction with African-American viewership, and once the novelty of their presence in primetime started to wane both shows were canceled.

Looking to replicate the success they garnered with their runaway hit All in the Family (1971) the tandem of Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear drew again from the British Broadcast Corporation airways for the their next project. Yorkin and Lear were looking to reimaging the long-running show Steptoe and Son. Lear and Yorkin's version would have the unique twist of replacing the West London father and son junk dealers with two blue-collar minority Americans. Every combination of hyphenated Americans were tried but nothing truly resonated until the suggestion that veteran funnyman Redd Foxx play the role of the father. Demond Wilson, who was already a known quantity from his work on All in the Family, was given opportunity to read for the son role.

In the biography Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story, Micahel Seth Starr spoke to the instantaneous connection between Foxx and Wilson as he quoted Yorkin who said, "Redd and Demon walked in front of the cameras and did their scene together. It had been only four days since they'd met for the first time at Redd's house in Las Vegas. The All in the Family cast fell on the floor... I have never heard guys laughing like that. It went on and on."

Though it was only one scene, NBC had seen enough and offered the newly named Sanford and Son a midseason replacement spot and ordered 17 episodes.

Premiering January 14, 1972, just weeks after being greenlit, there was not time to substantially rewrite show scripts, so the first season of Sanford and Son closely followed the first season of Steptoe and Son. However, what separated Sanford and Son from its predecessors was Wilson and Foxx's insistence on including elements of their lives into the show. For instance, Redd Foxx's birth name is John Elroy Sanford, Fred Sanford, who he would play on the show, is the name of Foxx's older brother who raised Foxx after their father left the family. Even Fred's signature move was pulled from Foxx's life as he said, "My mother would do the same thing that Fred does; she would have heart attacks when I was a kid, I remember. When she wanted something done she could hardly breathe -- she had emphysema, she had cancer, she had lumbado, she had whooping cough."

The editorial input from the leads paid huge dividends as the show averaged 16 million viewers during the first season. Still there were critics that raised a range of issues with the show. Some disliked Lamont's treatment of Fred, others thought it was unbecoming that the father and son where junk men. One of the loudest raps on Sanford and Son was its lack of diversity behind the camera. The response to these grips is where this landmark program became a legend.

As production on season two started there was a move away from the Steptoe and Son source material. That choice brought about the need for more writers and a concussions decision was made to prioritizes diversity. Richard Prior and Paul Mooney, who were protégés of Foxx were brought on as freelance writers. This was before Adell Stevenson, who would change his name to Ilunga Adell became one of the first full-time African-American writers on network television. In this same vein, Stan Lathan broke down barriers and directed numerous episodes over the course of the series.

Sanford and Son not only opened doors for previously underappreciated minority talent -- the show sparked dialogue on an array social and political issues. In season two alone the subjects of interracial marriage, Pan-Africanism and black-on-black prejudice were all touched upon. Also during the show's run, the country was introduces to dizzying assortment of unforgettable characters. Forgetful but dependable Grady (Whitman Mayo), always into some Rollo (Nathaniel Taylor) and the original black church lady Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page), just to name a few.

Possibly the highest compliment that can be paid to Sanford and Son is to point out that it can never truly be replicated. Sanford and Son was a lone minority-focused primetime television show for a period, but the impact of its success was so far reaching that even before its final curtain call there were not less than three similar shows on the airwaves -- Good Times (1974), The Jefferson (1975) and What's Happening (1976). Not bad for a fisheye fool junkman and his big dummy son/partner in grime.