“I’ll Be Back” : The Story of Redd Foxx
Today marks the birth date of Redd Foxx, an “overnight sensation” in the comedy world whose early life was defined by adversity and later years by a blur of women, cocaine, endless lawsuits, and financial chaos. Read on for an exclusive excerpt from Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story, brought to you by Michael Seth Starr and Applause Theatre & Cinema books.
Dawn broke hot and hazy that fall Friday in 1991. It wasn’t the typical October day in Southern California, where the blazing summer sun usually concedes to cooler fall temperatures. This was a different kind of day. The weather had turned harsh during the past week as the city of Los Angeles, along with the rest of the state, baked in the grip of an unprecedented heat wave. Temperatures the previous day had reached 107 degrees in downtown Los Angeles—a new record. And it wasn’t much better today.Inside the cavernous, air-conditioned Stage 31 on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, the cast and crew of the new CBS sitcom The Royal Family were preparing to rehearse a scene for that week’s show, which would be taped the following night before a live audience. The mood on the set was business-like but friendly, with a touch of jocularity. Everyone was feeling good, and why not? The Royal Family had premiered three weeks before to mostly positive reviews and solid ratings, pleasing the suits at CBS—a vibe that trickled down to the cast and crew. The show had legs.
While assistant directors scurried around, sound men positioned their boom mikes, and episode director Shelley Jensen barked last-minute blocking instructions to the cast and crew, series star Redd Foxx was backstage, being interviewed for an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The irony wasn’t lost on anyone, since Redd, while certainly still famous, was no longer rich, and hadn’t been for some time. His profligate spending, failed business ventures, willingness to open his wallet to anyone who asked for a handout—and the long arm of the Internal Revenue Service—had seen to that. But Lifestyles host and executive producer Robin Leach—chronicler of the jet-setting crowd with his plummy “Champagne wishes and caviar dreams!” mantra— knew that The Royal Family marked an important baby step in Redd Foxx’s comeback from the abyss of financial and professional ruin. It made for a good story.
Redd knew how much The Royal Family meant to him now. He didn’t need any more reminders of how far his star had fallen, or how he was going to repay the millions he still owed to the IRS. It was somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million, but who the hell really knew? Maybe it was more, maybe it was less. It didn’t really matter anymore. The bastards had taken pretty much everything he owned—even ripped the gold watch Elvis Presley had given him right off his wrist—and now they were garnishing his Royal Family salary. Was there no end to the humiliation? Redd tried to laugh it off—passing a hat around at his live stage shows in Las Vegas, asking for help to pay his bills—but it hurt him deeply. Deep down he knew he had only himself to blame.
And then, with the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous cameras rolling, as Redd was answering a question about his new cast mates, an unseen
Royal Family production assistant suddenly interrupted him midsentence. He was told he was needed on the set to rehearse a scene in which his sitcom character, Al Royal, would pass through nonchalantly in the background, unnoticed by his wife, who was played by Della Reese. It was a job that could have been handled by anyone with a pulse. Did they really need Redd now, in the middle of an important interview? Couldn’t it wait?
Remembering the incident almost twenty years later, Della Reese was still angry about that interruption. “It was not required at all,” she said. “Redd was very polite. He felt embarrassed that this man, in the first place, spoke to him in front of these strangers [from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous].”
But Redd also knew there was nothing he could do about it. Maybe back in his Sanford and Son heyday, but not now. There was too much water under the bridge. He knew he was on a short leash, knew that The Royal Family producers and the network watchdogs on the set held the upper hand now. They were all-too-aware of Redd’s reputation for making trouble behind the scenes. He needed them now more than they needed him. It was a simple Hollywood equation. Do what we tell you, or take a hike. We’ll find someone else. It doesn’t matter that you’re Redd Foxx, who once played Fred Sanford. It doesn’t matter that you’re Redd Foxx, who was once the highest-paid star on television. It doesn’t matter that you’re Redd Foxx who, once upon a time, single-handedly brought a network to its knees. That was twenty years ago. A lifetime in this business. This is now. What have you done for us lately? “They were forever on Redd about something or other, in some respect,” said Reese. “They wanted to be in charge of Redd, which nobody ever was going to be.”
So Redd did what he was told, like an errant child being scolded by a parent or a teacher. Visibly embarrassed and harrumphing again in short staccato bursts, he shot daggers at the person who had interrupted his interview with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, as the show’s camera continued to roll, capturing the awkward scene. “Boy, that ticks me off,” Redd mumbled, removing his glasses and wiping them absent-mindedly. The man who had created one of the most indelible characters in television history, who turned Fred Sanford’s “You big dummy!” and histrionic “heart attacks” into national comedic treasures, was reduced to a chastened, embarrassed network employee, mumbling an apology to his interviewer. “I’m sorry about the interruption. I’ll be back,” he said, getting up from his chair to head back to the set. Within minutes he would collapse into unconsciousness.
Within hours, he was dead.
Redd Foxx’s frank, trailblazing style as the “King of the Party Records” opened the door for a generation of African-American comedians including Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock.
Foxx took the country by storm in January 1972 as crotchety, bow-legged Watts junk dealer Fred Sanford in Sanford and Son, one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history. Fred’s histrionic “heart attacks” (“It’s the big one, Elizabeth! I’m comin’ to join ya, honey!”) and catchphrases (“You big dummy!”) turned Fred Sanford into a cultural icon and Redd Foxx into a millionaire. Sanford and Son took Foxx to the pinnacle of television success – but would also prove to be his downfall.
Interviews with friends, confidantes, and colleagues provide a unique insight into this generous, brash, vulnerable performer – a man who Norman Lear described as “inherently, innately funny in every part of his being.” Available for purchase here.