The New York Post TV columnist and author of Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story, shares his thoughts on Foxx’ enduring comedic legacy.
Writer Michael Starr
Tavis: Michael Starr is an influential television writer for the “New York Post” whose previous books include biographies of Art Carney and Raymond Burr. His latest focus is on TV and comedy legend, Redd Foxx. The new text is called “Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story.” Michael, good to have you on this program.
Michael Starr: Great to be here, Tavis. Thank you.
Tavis: My favorite part of this book was learned the nickname that Fred Sanford was given as a child. His nickname was?
Starr: Smiley Sanford because he was always smiling.
Tavis: Say it again.
Starr: Smiley Sanford.
Tavis: [Laugh] ’cause he was always smiling.
Starr: He had a smile like that, yes.
Tavis: I had no idea that was his nickname.
Starr: Yeah, before Redd and all that.
Tavis: What do you think people – there are so many things that we’ll jump into in a second – but what for you when you started researching his life were some of the most surprising things about Redd Foxx for you?
Starr: There were a few things. First of all, his relationship with Malcolm X, which I didn’t really know. I knew a little bit about it, but I really got into it in the book and how close they really were in Harlem in the ’40s. Malcolm X was then known as Malcolm Little, Redd was known as Redd Foxx, and they were dishwashers together in a place called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem.
They ran together. They had a lot of schemes. They sold suits off the rooftops of a building and were very close. That was one of the things that interested me.
Also, the fact that Redd started out to be a singer, not a comedian, and cut six R&B sides on Savoy Records which was based out of Newark. They didn’t sell. He didn’t have a great voice, so he turned to comedy and the rest is history.
Tavis: What’s funny about it, though, is, when I discovered that in the text, it really didn’t surprise me because, on “Sanford and Son,” he was always singing.
Starr: Yeah, he was scatting, right.
Tavis: “If I didn’t care” [laugh].
Starr: Fixing Lamont’s breakfast, right, exactly.
Tavis: He was always good at singing things. That didn’t surprise me after I discovered he wanted to be a singer.
Tavis: It’s one thing to want to be a singer and to end up into comedy, but how did he know, when did he know, that he was gifted enough to be a comedian?
Starr: Well, Redd was always a funny guy. Even when he was known as Smiley Sanford, he was always cutting up. He was the class cut-up in school and, when is music career was sort of going nowhere, he got an invitation from a friend to come down to a club in Baltimore called Gamby’s which was by the docks. It was a tough place.
It was there really that he discovered this gift for interacting with the audience and making them laugh. He was sort of like Don Rickles of his day. He would make fun of people in the audience, but in a way that was funny and not mean-spirited. And he discovered that he had this great gift and that stint at Gamby’s led to another stint at another club and on and on.
Before you knew it, he had met Slappy White back in Harlem and they started to tour together.
Tavis: We’ll come to “Sanford and Son” in a second. One of the things that I did know, but you just colored in for me so much more, and that is the absolute success he had with records. He didn’t do well selling records on which he was singing, but his comedy albums, he sold millions of comedy albums.
Starr: He sold millions of comedy albums. The estimates range anywhere from 10 to 30 million, what they called party records. He was one of the first guys to put his stand-up act onto wax, records back then, and they were sold under the counter for the most part, but they sold and they crossed over from strictly a Black audience in the beginning.
After a few years, they started to make their way onto college campuses. You know, white kids were listening to him. People would hold rent parties to play Redd’s records to help collect the rent. Everybody would come over and have a good time and really getting his name out there, doing that while he was touring at the same time.
Tavis: You mentioned his relationship to Malcolm X. Malcolm, of course, famously known for deliberately and unapologetically engaging in the fight for civil and human rights. Dick Gregory is on the comedy circuit the same time Redd Foxx is. Dick, totally unafraid, his comedy is based upon social observations. Redd famously stayed away from political commentary in his comedy. What was that all about?
Starr: I think it wasn’t his thing. It wasn’t his style. His style was more bawdy, talking about bodily functions and sex and the interplay between men and women. I think he felt in a way that, if he did get too political, it might hurt his chances in the long run. He did make the occasional political joke, especially in the ’60s, but for the most part, he stayed away from that. It wasn’t his thing.
I think that’s one of the reasons why his friendship with Malcolm X, Malcolm Little at that time, they diverged because, you know, Malcolm started to take a more political path and Redd just wanted to make people laugh and work the clubs. They kind of split and they stayed in touch vaguely with each other through the years, but never were really that close after that.
Tavis: Gary Shandling, who you know, of course, has been a guest on this program any number of times. The last time Gary was here, we got into a real deep conversation about how he started as a writer, as you know, on “Sanford and Son.”
I was joking with him about how all these Jewish guys who are writing on “Sanford and Son” really could make this show work. It’s a Black show, it’s based in Watts and you got a staff full of Jewish white guys who are writing the show. So we got into a conversation about that.
What I did not know until getting into your text is that “Sanford and Son” tried an Italian cast, they tried – I’ll let you tell the story. They ended up settling on a Black cast ’cause it was a British show that they reworked. But I’ll let you tell the story of how Redd Foxx and Mr. Wilson weren’t the first ones up, though.
Starr: No. The producers of the show, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, had had a lot of success the year before with “All in the Family,” which was borrowed from a British show called “‘Til Death Do Us Part.” They said, “Okay, well, let’s see if we can do it again.”
So they took a British show called “Steptoe and Son,” about a junkman and his son, but they didn’t really quite know how to cast it. As you mentioned, they tried a Jewish cast, they tried an Italian cast with Paul Sorvino, they tried a Puerto Rican cast. Cleavon Little, who knew Redd from Redd’s club, said to Bud Yorkin, “Well, why don’t you try Redd Foxx?”
Yorkin had remembered seeing Redd in “Cotton Comes to Harlem” where he played a junkman, so it was kind of tailor-made for him. Interestingly enough, Redd didn’t really want to do the show at first. He was more interested in doing a cooking show with his wife where he would invite his celebrity friends and they’d cook and they’d talk.
So he kind of had to have his leg pulled to do this. Once he heard what kind of money was available, he said, you know, I’m in. So they auditioned him, he was great. I think they were a little surprised because they weren’t sure he could learn an entire script in a few days, which he was spot on.
Then they flew Demond Wilson out to Las Vegas to meet Redd. They hit it off, and they shot this pilot with the cast of “All in the Family” watching because it was in the same studio. They said that people were rolling on the floor and I think they knew right there and then. NBC said, you know, you’re on the schedule. I think they knew they had a hit show.
Tavis: You mentioned when Redd figured out how much money there was in the show that he immediately jumped at the opportunity to do it. Yet we knew then, famously or infamously, he was so bad with money. Why?
Starr: He wasn’t a good – he didn’t have a head for business. He tried. Once he got famous on “Sanford and Son,” he started Redd Foxx Productions, he had a beauty parlor, he had a car flocking business where they would velvetize cars. I think he was being robbed blind by some people who worked for him at the time. This dated back even when he had his own comedy club.
He put $40,000 down to buy what was called the Slate Brothers Club, but then he wasn’t there very often because he was on the road. Bill Cosby came in as a partner for a little while and, when he saw what was going on, how mismanaged it was, he just said, “I’m outta here.” I’m not gonna make any money on this.
Redd ended up losing that club because he lost a lot of money. He had bartenders stealing from him, waitresses stealing from him, and also his own mismanagement. He didn’t trust a lot of people and he just didn’t take advice.
We should also mention the fact that Redd never paid his taxes. He just didn’t feel like it or believe in it. He actually says, and there’s a quote in the book, he says, “I’ll pay my taxes when there’s a Black president.”
Tavis: He’d be paying now [laugh].
Starr: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: So Redd was the original Wesley Snipes [laugh]. Before there was Wesley, there was Redd. I could do this for hours because I’m just a huge Redd Foxx fan. I watched “Sanford and Son” like every day.
My favorite episode, not that you asked, was just on the other day. B.B. King guest starred, Riley King. I love that episode. Just saw it a couple days ago. But what do you think his enduring legacy is, comedic legacy?
Starr: I think his comedic legacy, first of all, is as a huge TV icon with “Sanford and Son” and opening a door. See, Redd was a guy who just wasn’t afraid to do his own brand of comedy. He just didn’t care and he opened the doors for guys like Richard Pryor who cut his teeth at Redd’s comedy club in the ’60s and actually recorded some albums there. He idolized Redd. Guys like Chris Rock.
I think the use of language and the use of what you can talk about on stage and sort of breaking down the door of what you were allowed to talk about on stage with sex and bodily functions, Redd was really the first guy doing that and I think a lot of guys today owe a big debt to him.
Tavis: I’m out of time with my conversation with Michael Starr about Redd Foxx. I promise you this, though. If you go to our website at pbs.org, I am going to tell it my own way, my favorite Redd Foxx joke, which I won’t tell on television. I’m gonna tell it myself at pbs.org as Michael Starr.
The joke’s in the book, but I’m gonna tell the joke in just a second. Redd did tell one political joke that I think is hilarious and I’ll tell it online. You go to pbs.org/tavis; you will hear me tell it.
The new book from Michael Starr is called “Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story,” a wonderful story about this great comedic icon, Redd Foxx. Michael, good to have you here.
Starr: Oh, thanks for having me on. It was great.
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