Redd Foxx: TV legend ‘came of age’ on Chicago’s streets
A great new biography of comedian Redd Foxx traces the amazing road that led to television immortality as the star of Sanford and Son and reveals the pivotal role Chicago played in shaping his life and career.
Once among the highest paid and most popular characters in prime time, Foxx came a long way from the abandonment, poverty and petty crime of his childhood. But his immense success proved fleeting in the wake of catastrophic legal and financial problems, drug abuse and other indiscretions that hastened his death in 1991.
It’s all told in Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story by Michael Starr, veteran TV columnist for the New York Post. Starr quotes from dozens of interviews he conducted with friends and acquaintances of Foxx, and cites numerous published sources, including a disappointing biography by Dempsey J. Travis, the late Chicago businessman and author who knew Foxx as a youth.
Born Jon Sanford in St. Louis, Foxx spent his early adolescence in Chicago, where he attended the brand new DuSable High School in the 1930s with Harold Washington, the future mayor of Chicago. (The two earlier had been classmates at St. Benedict the Moor Mission, a black Catholic boarding school in Milwaukee.)
But it was outside of school as a gang member and budding street performer that Foxx learned to play “the dozens” (a game of matching wits by hurling steadily increasing insults at an opponent), honing verbal skills that would later become his trademark as both a nightclub comic and the acid-tongued character he played on TV.
“Redd came of age on the streets of Chicago, both with the 58th Street Gang and with his exposure to music and some comedy at DuSable High,” Starr told me. “And it was from Chicago that a 16-year-old Jon Sanford and his buddies hopped a freight train that would take them to Harlem — and would change Redd’s life forever.”
In Harlem he found a kindred spirit in Malcolm Little, and together Chicago Red (as Foxx then was known) and Detroit Red (as Little was known) lived on a tenement rooftop and made names for themselves as small-time criminals and hustlers. Little later would become famous as the Black Muslim leader Malcolm X.
Foxx’s work in all-black clubs on the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit led to a series of groundbreaking comedy records and helped pave the way for such comedians as Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. Norman Lear’s 1972 adaptation of the British series Steptoe and Son, recast as an all-back sitcom set in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles, became Foxx’s greatest triumph. As junk dealer Fred Sanford, his fake heart attacks (“It’s the big one, Elizabeth!”) and familiar catchphrases (“You big dummy!”) endeared him to millions.
Starr has become a master of the celebrity biography, having written definitive books on show biz legends Bobby Darin, Art Carney, Joey Bishop and Peter Sellers. His 2009 Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr is an absolute must-read for fans of the Perry Mason and Ironside star, who lived a closeted life as a homosexual and concocted a fantasy back-story about himself that even Paul Drake would find impossible to unravel.
With Black and Blue, Starr has done it again, delivering a fascinating and solidly reported story of a flawed, gifted, complex figure who left a legacy of laughter for all time.