By Mark Goodman
October 28, 1991 12:00 PM

TO HEAR DELLA REESE TELL IT, THE SLY OLD COMIC REDD FOXX DIED just the way he would have wanted. “He decided to leave this world at 7:45 P.M.,” says Reese, Foxx’s TV wife on the new CBS sitcom The Royal Family, “and at that time we had an electrical storm. I think that if he could have staged it, directed it and produced it,” she sadly adds, “he would have done it just this way. It was as if he lit up the sky where he was going, like he was saying, ‘Get the light on! Turn on the light!’ I choose to believe he turned on the light on the way out.”

Yes, it almost seemed as if Redd Foxx, reprising his favorite mal jeste from Sanford and Son, had clutched his chest and cried once more to his character’s late wife, “Elizabeth, it’s the big one! I’m coming to join you, honey!”—and it happened. And Reese is right: It would have suited Foxx’s low-down, high-toned sense of drama to orchestrate his own exit in such grand style. After all, this was the man who almost single-handedly brought the harsh black comedy of the Chitlin’ Circuit into mainstream American culture and cleared the road for such disciples as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. As Foxx might have said: Man who can do that can have any kind of send-off he wants.

In fact, on Friday, Oct. 11, when Foxx collapsed on Stage 31 of the Paramount lot in Los Angeles around 4 P.M., several Royal Family cast members assumed it was a gag. After all, Foxx, as was his wont between takes, had been cracking jokes for his colleagues’ benefit. “We thought he had taken a pratfall,” Reese recalls. “We didn’t know what happened to him at first. Then we were trying to give him CPR, trying to call 911 and trying to get the first-aid people from the lot.”

Foxx was rushed to Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center and died of complications from a heart attack some three hours later. No one near him suspected that the 68-year-old actor-comedian, for all his wayward ways, was having any health problems. Cast members insist that he was in high spirits, what with a new prime-time TV show and a new wife (his fourth), Korean-born Kaho Cho, 30ish, whom he married last July in Las Vegas. Says Reese, his pal from their early club days: “He was always speaking to me about how happy he was. He said he was a man with everything, two new wives and a TV series. His wife refers to me as his other wife,” Reese adds with affection. “We were family.”

To Foxx, his family consisted of the people who had been with him from the old days. He got them jobs, got them parts on his TV shows, played their dinky little clubs for nothing. So it was that 600 of Foxx’s extended family and friends—including Sanford co-star La Wanda (Aunt Esther) Page, Gladys Knight and Lola Falana—turned out in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Oct. 15, for the funeral of the man who, for all his empyreal excesses and imperious ways, wouldn’t leave them behind and never let them down. (Notable absentees were Eddie Murphy, whose tribute was read, and Demond Wilson, Foxx’s Sanford son.)

Don Bexley (Bubba on Sanford and Son), Foxx’s pal of nearly 50 years, once offered this assessment of his roots: “Redd is a street man,” he said. “He knows that to survive, you have to be a good hustler.”

No one ever accused Foxx of not hustling. Born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, he started playing with a tramp band on Chicago street corners at age 13. Three years later, in 1938, the group hopped a freight to New York City. There, Sanford decided he needed a new name. His friends had called him Fox, for his stylish ways, and Red, because he was carrot-topped. Then he saw the name of the great slugger Jimmie Foxx, and Redd (“the extra letter,” he said, “was so people would remember it”) Foxx was born.

He found a place to live on a tenement rooftop with another “Red”—Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, the fiery Black Muslim leader who was gunned down in 1965. (In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Foxx—”Chicago Red”—is described by Malcolm as “the funniest dishwasher on this earth.”) Foxx scruffed around and even did short time on Rikers Island for heisting a bottle of milk. “If you can eat, you can think of something funny,” he said later, “but hungry, you can only think of something to steal.”

He finally got a stand-up gig in Baltimore. His routines, brutally scatological and scathingly funny, began to catch on in black clubs. After the war he teamed up with comic Slappy White, his partner into the ’50s. Singer Dinah Washington persuaded Foxx to come to Los Angeles, where recording executive Dootsie Williams spotted him at the Brass Rail and signed him to make comedy records. The down-and-dirty Redd Foxx album Laff of the Party quickly became a contraband favorite of teens across the land. His albums sold nearly 15 million copies, but Foxx claimed he was “robbed so bad, I just didn’t want to make any more.”

By the ’60s, Foxx was appearing at Harlem’s storied Apollo Theater. The theater’s owner, Bobby Schiffman, managed to get a sanitized Foxx on The Tonight Show, which in turn led to more TV shots and, finally, an entrée into the gilded rooms of Las Vegas. “I swear to God and any three other white men that you’re going to enjoy me,” he rasped to middle-class audiences. And they did.

Meanwhile Hollywood was riding the new wave of black action films; Foxx soon landed the part of a savvy junk man in 1970’s Cotton Comes to Harlem. His performance caught the eyes of producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin who, on the heels of their success with All in the Family, wanted to try something far riskier: a show with black stars about a Los Angeles junk man and his son. Foxx agreed, insisting on two things: using his family name of Sanford and not using hackneyed black dialect. “I don’t eat watermelon at home,” he said. “I won’t on TV.”

Sanford and Son, which debuted in 1972 and featured Foxx sparring craftily with Demond Wilson, scored in the Nielsen ratings and ran for six seasons, making Redd Foxx a synonym for gritty ghetto humor.

Foxx’s private life was not always so successful. He married four times (Evelyn Killibrew, Betty Jean Harris, Yun Chi Chung and Cho) but was never house-trained. Foxx was a high roller, the kind of profligate spender who never quite had enough left over for the tax man. In 1989, IRS agents entered his three-bedroom Las Vegas home and stripped it clean. “I was treated like I wasn’t human,” Foxx cried.

Nothing in Foxx’s later career quite matched the success of Sanford and Son. He appeared in the 1989 film Harlem Nights with his pals Murphy and Pryor and was excited about getting another TV shot with Royal Family, which Murphy coproduces. Now baffled executives are pondering what to do about the show. Several have suggested that only Sherman (Amen) Hemsley could fill Foxx’s shoes.

Fill them on this show, possibly; replace Foxx, never. Says Norman Lear: “We’ve lost one of the rare clowns in any generation. He couldn’t say he had a headache without making you laugh.”