Born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, he played washtub bass on the streets of Harlem and later pool with a hustler who was to become Malcolm X. As a comic, he made his stage name—Redd Foxx—on the black nightclub Chitlin’ Circuit, on “party” (meaning X-rated) records, and in the Las Vegas lounges. Finally, in the past two years, as Fred Sanford, the junkman father on NBC’s Sanford and Son, Redd emerged as the second most popular character on television (behind Archie Bunker only) and as one of the highest paid stars in show business. But all that money was buying Redd a lot of grief, to hear him tell it. He walked off the show last year and was TV’s most spectacular holdout as spring production for the fall season got underway—rich beyond the dreams of young John Sanford, and un-happier than old Fred, the junkman, could imagine.
Last week in Las Vegas, while lawyers, agents, and network vice presidents negotiated and hoped for a magic Kissinger-like conciliation to keep him in the series, Foxx treaded water ambivalently in the pool of one of his five homes. The windows were papered with court injunctions enjoining his estranged wife from removing any property during pending divorce litigation. And it was hard probably even for Foxx himself to separate haggler’s hyperbole from genuine hurt, when he confided to Joseph Modzelewski of PEOPLE: “I wish I’d never heard of Sanford and Son.”
The contract conflict began last winter when Foxx sat (and had to be written) out of the last five episodes of the 1973-74 season. Redd, 51, blamed his absence on the mental and physical abrasion of a weekly series. Four or five times, he claims, he had to be taken to the hospital with psychosomatic hives, and there is a quiltwork of stiches on his left knee where surgeons removed cartilage from an old injury he says he aggravated with his gimpy portrayal of the arthritic junk dealer. His marriage of 17 years, Redd believes, was also a casualty of the show. “When I went to Hollywood,” he reports, “I didn’t have time to spend with her like I did in Vegas. Here, I did two 45-minute shows, and we always had time to go out after, or we could go to the movies or horseback ridin’. In Hollywood, I spent all my time readin’ scripts, workin’ eight hours a day, seven days a week. When I came home, I just went to sleep. My wife had all this Gucci and Pucci stuff and no place to wear it.”
NBC and Tandem Productions (producers of Sanford, All in the Family and other hits) countered that the real hangup was Foxx’s childish inability to cope with his instant superstardom. He appeared at the studio flaunting a pearl-handled revolver. He protested the absence of windows in the Burbank rehearsal studio where Bob Hope had worked for years without complaint. He insisted on being chauffeured around the set in a golf cart, and required servings of soul food between takes. All the while, Foxx had forced his salary up from $6,000 to $25,000 per half-hour episode—through “economic extortion,” they said.
When the shooting for next fall began in April, Foxx held out again, this time for a 25% piece of the series. Tandem hit back with a $10 million breach-of-contract suit restraining Redd from any other public performances during the 22 weeks of the production season, and segments were again taped without him.
Though he had earlier weakened his case by proclaiming on a talk show that he was really after “whatever anyone who was No. 1 at NBC before me was getting plus a dollar,” Redd now suggested that Tandem’s resistance to his demands was racist. “I’m fighting now for a whole lot of black people in show business who never had any doors opened for them. Danny Thomas and Lucille Ball and Dick Van Dyke and all those cats got a piece of their shows. Why can’t a black man ever get a piece of his show? You know what I am? A tuxedo slave—they send a limousine for me and want to pat me on the hair and goose me at parties and expect me to be a happy black buck.”
Meanwhile, Tandem was privately sweetening its offer to include a possible percentage deal while coproducer Bud Yorkin was publicly declaring that Sanford could survive without Foxx—”there’s no immortality in this world.” Foxx demurred, saying, “The show went pure Uncle Tom when I left.” And then Foxx reiterated his case: “Salary don’t mean nothing. I got to make a million bucks to clear $150,000. What I need is a percent of the show so I can make some capital gains. Either that,” he concluded (displaying the humor that could save the situation after all) “or Nixon’s tax lawyer.”