Comedian Redd Foxx, who became a television star playing an irascible, bawdy junkman in "Sanford and Son" and returned nearly two decades later in the current CBS series "The Royal Family," died Friday of a heart attack. He was 68.
Foxx died at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center nearly four hours after he collapsed at Paramount Studios while rehearsing the latest episode of his television series.
Foxx was stricken at 4:10 p.m. while rehearsing a scene for the series on a studio sound stage, said Rachel McCallister, a spokeswoman for the program. The rehearsal was halted after the actor collapsed. There was no audience present.
"They were rehearsing on the set and clowning around, and Redd was sort of breaking people up when he collapsed," said McCallister. "They all thought he was joking around at first, and then they called the paramedics."
McCallister said virtually the entire cast and crew went to the hospital, and Foxx's wife, Ka Ha Cho, whom he married in July, was at his side when he died. McCallister said that Foxx's body will be flown to Las Vegas for burial. Funeral plans are pending.
It was uncertain how Foxx's death would affect the series, which is scheduled to resume taping Tuesday.
Foxx, whose entertainment career spanned more than five decades, was known for his portrayal of cantankerous but endearing television characters and for performing off-color routines in nightclubs.
Until the television debut of "Sanford and Son" in 1972, Foxx was known more by the occupants of smoke-filled nightclubs and purchasers of his several randy recordings than by the American public at large.
Afterward, his life became a roller-coaster saga--soaring from rags to riches, sliding back into bankruptcy and troubles with the Internal Revenue Service before Foxx made a comeback this fall as a prime-time star.
In his new television series, Foxx played Al Royal, a retired Atlanta mail carrier whose life is disrupted when his grown daughter moves back home with her three children. But to some, his character was merely a reincarnation of the role he popularized in 1972 as the crabby Fred G. Sanford--a name that he chose as a tribute to his brother who had died five years earlier.
"Sanford and Son" was set in Watts and avoided the mainstream of black stereotypes on television. Of the show that entertained television viewers for five years on NBC, Foxx said in a 1973 interview: "I'm convinced that 'Sanford and Son' shows middle-class America a lot of what they need to know. . . . The show is lighthearted, doesn't drive home a lesson, but it can open up peoples' minds enough for them to see how stupid every kind of prejudice can be."
Foxx, never one to keep his opinions to himself, said in the same interview: "I don't want no black takeover. . . . Black power and white power are meaningless, I want green (money) power."
But the comedian and actor, whose distinctive voice drew descriptions of coarse sandpaper to the low-throated growl of a blues singer, was credited with influencing a generation of black comics who followed him.
Brandon Tartikoff, chairman of Paramount Pictures, which co-produced the show, said in a statement: "Redd Foxx was blessed with the ability to make people laugh and audiences everywhere loved him for it. Within a short period of time, Redd and his Royal Family had won their way into millions of homes and hearts. All of us at Paramount are sad to lose such a friend and a one-of-a-kind talent."
The scraggly-faced entertainer was born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, Mo. When he was 4, his father deserted the family, leaving the boy, his older brother, Fred Jr., and his mother penniless.
As a boy, he was the rascal he later portrayed on stage and TV, attracting trouble at an early age. He was once expelled from school for throwing a book back at a teacher who had thrown it at him. He quit high school after one year to form a washtub band with two friends, Lamont Ousley and Steve Trimel.
In 1939, Foxx and company, wanting to hit the big time, ran away from home. The trio called itself the Bon-Bons and performed on New York City street corners and in subways until they split up during World War II.
In those years, Foxx's major concern was survival. He worked as a busboy and pushed carts in the garment district for meal money while sleeping on a rooftop.
During this period, Foxx met and befriended Malcolm Little, who, like him, had red hair. John Sanford became Chicago Red and Little became Detroit Red to avoid confusion at the Harlem restaurant where they worked.
Chicago Red took his imagination one step further, adding an extra "d" to Red and changing his last name to Foxx "because I was a foxy dresser," he would say years later.
Little, who later changed his name to Malcolm X and went on to become the Black Muslim leader, remembered Foxx in his autobiography as "the funniest dishwasher on this earth."
After performing in nightclubs on the East Coast, Foxx arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s and began recording his club routines. By 1960, he was performing in Las Vegas, and a decade later, Foxx had signed a three-year, $960,000 contract guaranteeing him 32 weeks a year in Las Vegas at $10,000 a week.
"I figured that was the pinnacle," he later said.
But he miscalculated.
In 1969, Foxx had accepted the small role of an aging junk dealer in the movie "Cotton Comes to Harlem." His portrayal of the character grabbed the attention of television producers Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, who were hoping to duplicate their success with "All in the Family."
Their new project, like Archie Bunker's "Family," was adapted from a British series and became "Sanford and Son.".
For Foxx, with fame and riches came the attitude that he was not being appreciated. In 1976, Foxx left NBC in a contract dispute to join ABC for a comedy-variety show slotted for the 1977-78 season. The show lasted less than a year.
In 1980, Foxx and NBC attempted a reconciliation with a revival of the Sanford series, sans son. But Foxx had lost his popularity. The show was quickly canceled and he returned to the Los Angeles and Las Vegas clubs where he still commanded a large following.
In 1989, Foxx joined friends Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor in the much-touted, but critically panned film "Harlem Nights." However, the movie brought together what many critics termed "two generations of comedy." Foxx had given Pryor his start in the 1970s when he hired the then unknown and struggling comic to perform in his Los Angeles nightclub.
"I got to watch him work every night," Pryor said in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1990. "He gave me inspiration and encouragement so I could be more me."
Murphy's and Pryor's risque performances have been compared to those of Foxx. The older comedian, however, claimed that he set the tone. "There are no new jokes," he said. "It's just that (the new comedians) speak a little broader . . . They're geniuses and I'm dirty. "
In recent years, Foxx was in dire financial straits, and a portion of his earnings from his new television show was earmarked for the IRS, which last year seized his cars, jewelry and other property, claiming that the comedian owed nearly $3 million in back taxes.