‘Sanford and Son’ Star Redd Foxx’s Death Sadly Imitated His Sitcom Shtick

There’s one thing that comedians Richard Pryor, Pat Morita, Jamie Foxx and Chris Rock all have in common: They’ve all cited the Redd Foxx as their comedic inspiration. Although Foxx passed away in 1991, he’s left a lasting legacy on the North American comedy world.

Over the span of his decades-long career Foxx, starred on numerous TV shows and earned multiple Academy Award nominations. And in a sad twist of fate, one of his recurring jokes on his TV show Sanford and Son was an unfortunate harbinger of his untimely death. 

Redd Foxx got his big career break in the 1970s

Redd Foxx as Fred G. Sanford
Redd Foxx as Fred G. Sanford | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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Redd Foxx’s real name was John Elroy Sanford. He changed his name to Foxx in the mid-1900s while he was trying to grow his comedy career doing nightclub routines in New York City.

“In 1970 he gave a memorable comic performance in the hit film Cotton Comes to Harlem,” reports Britannica, “and soon afterward he was approached by television producer Norman Lear about starring in the American version of the popular British sitcom Steptoe and Son.” That show would become Sanford and Son, where Foxx played a widower living with his son.

“The show was a major success,” notes Britannica. With his new stardom, Foxx leveraged his fame to do multiple TV shows on NBC and ABC, several movies, and even moments as a guest star on other comedians’ TV shows.

According to Comedy Central, he’s one of the top 25 greatest stand-up comedians of all time. After Foxx passed away, he received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, with the organization honoring him as “one of the nation’s funniest nightclub comics.”

Foxx’s show ‘Sanford and Son’ had numerous running gags

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Foxx’s sitcom Sanford and Son ran on NBC from 1972 to 1977. Time ranks the sitcom as one of the top shows in TV history. “Never was a more unlikely comic adapted so effectively to a sitcom as Redd Foxx,” explained the publication. “Foxx, whose stage act liberally employed words and references that you still can’t use on broadcast TV, was cleaned up, but not smoothed over.”

As part of his “cleaned-up” act, Foxx employed several running gags (i.e., recurring jokes) in the sitcom. For example, when Foxx’s character Fred Sanford would get mad at his son Lamont (played by Demond Wilson), he’d often yell the catchphrase, “You big dummy!” Another common gag was the elder Sanford constantly complaining about his sore joints, over-pronouncing the word “arthritis” as “arthur-itis.”

But one common gag unfortunately foreshadowed how the real-life Foxx would die.

Foxx died of a heart attack but people initially thought he was joking

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A recurring joke in Sanford and Son involved Foxx holding his chest and pretending to have a heart attack. He’d often look up at the sky, and shout out to his deceased wife (e.g., “It’s the big one, I’m coming to join you!”).

Alas, life often imitates art.

On October 11, 1991, Foxx and the cast of The Royal Family were in the midst of practicing. “”They were rehearsing on the set and clowning around, and Redd was sort of breaking people up when he collapsed,” said Rachel McCallister, a spokesperson for the show, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “They all thought he was joking around at first, and then they called the paramedics.”

That delay as the cast thought Foxx was re-doing his Sanford and Son bit may have contributed to his untimely passing. “Redd Foxx may be best remembered for his melodramatically faked heart attacks,” explains Legacy.com. “They didn’t get him the medical assistance he needed until they realized it wasn’t an act – and by then, it was too late.”

Foxx was survived by his mother, the late Mary Sanford Carson, and his wife Kaho Cho.