Royal Foxx : DEJA View
Redd Foxx stands in the middle of the rehearsal stage with a lit cigarette in his left ear, his mouth puckering rhythmically as if blowing smoke rings.
Director Neema Barnette is off to the side, working with actress Mariann Aalda on an entrance, oblivious to the figure standing quietly to stage left, puffing away.
But as the titters grow to chuckles and, finally, guffaws, she turns around. Even the over-stressed stage manager has given up screeching for quiet on the set.
Hold on, Elizabeth!
He’s coming back.
Nearly 20 years after his portrayal of junk man Fred Sanford in NBC’s “Sanford and Son” made him a fixture in the nation’s television consciousness--and 14 years since his short-lived ABC variety show--comedian Redd Foxx returns to prime time this fall, starring opposite Della Reese in CBS’ “The Royal Family.”
Foxx plays Al Royal, a retired Atlanta mail carrier whose life is turned upside down when his grown daughter moves back home with her three children.
At rehearsal, Foxx is wearing a red and white warmup suit and a crocheted white cap. His very presence--his walk, his timing, his broad gestures--provoke giggles from the collection of tutors, hangers-on and associates who watch from nearby bleachers.
“It feels good to be back,” Foxx said in his dressing room. His voice in conversation comes out like coarse sandpaper, a growl from low in the throat, like an old blues singer.
It is late in the afternoon and Foxx is tired--accustomed to sleeping late during years of nightclub work, he is not yet used to the early hours and daily grind of television.
His nightclub act--his pride and joy--earned him the reputation as a “blue” comic in the days before four letter words were de rigeur and scatological humor packed stadiums.
“I was considered dirty when my first album came out in 1956,” he said. “I was considered filthy and lewd and nasty. But my stuff is clean compared to some of the comedians out there today ... There’s a lot of guys sying things I wouldn’t dare think of saying.”
Foxx started in show business singing on street corners in his native St. Louis as an adolescent. He says he was 13 or 14 when he ran away from home, first to Chicago and then to New York.
“It was kind of tough getting a job at my age, so I just sang on the corner,” he said. “Made some money, passed the hat.”
He sings a bit--"and would I be sure that this is love ... "--in a voice remarkably free of the gravel that marks his conversation.
“I’d sing whatever was popular at that time,” he said. “And I’d tell some jokes, do a funny dance.”
More often than not, the performance would end in the arrest of the performer, but, the next day, Foxx was usually back.
“You didn’t get (jail) time, just a reprimand. And it was something to do. It was better than stealing.”
Finally, when he was playing in the subways with a band called the Bon Bons, Foxx and his partners landed a nightclub job.
He’s been at it ever since.
“He keeps me laughing all the time,” said Della Reese, who plays Victoria Royal, Al’s wife, on the new series, which is produced by Eddie Murphy Television in association with Paramount Pictures. “A lot of people try to be funny and have funny acts and good writers, but Redd is God’s gift to humor.”
“The Royal Family” was born, Reese said, when Murphy overheard her and Foxx clowning around on the set of the 1989 film “Harlem Nights,” which Murphy produced, wrote and directed.
Foxx, Reese said, had called the film’s propmaster “Renuzit,” after the air freshener. (Her name is Renita Lorden.) Reese responded by threatening to call Foxx “Fuscia or Pale Green or Powder Blue” instead of Redd.
There followed a verbal contest in which Richard Pryor, who was also in the film, egged on both Reese and Foxx, until Murphy, listening in the background, decided the two belonged in a sitcom together.
A portion of Foxx’s earnings from the show are likely to go to the Internal Revenue Service, which last year seized his cars, jewelry and other property, claiming that the comedian owed nearly $3 million in back taxes.
Foxx is also planning to put out an album to help fray the cost of his tax bill. Called “I.R.S."--for “It’s Redd Singing"--the recording is due out later this year, and features six songs written by the entertainer himself.
“I’ve got to try to sell some records and straighten it out,” Foxx said.
Foxx has a reputation for being a bit like the characters he plays--a little gruff, a little irreverent.
“I guess you heard I called the boss in New York (CBS Chairman Lawrence Tisch) Tusch,” he says with a smile. "(Paramount chief Brandon) Tartikoff, I call him Tartar Sauce.”
Hold on, Elizabeth!
“Royal Family” premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBS.