LaWanda Page, comedic character actress best known for her role as the Bible-thumping Aunt Esther in the 1970s television hit “Sanford and Son,” has died. She was 81.
Page died Saturday in Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles of complications from diabetes.
“LaWanda lived the life she loved, and loved the life she lived,” said Donald Welch, who wrote and directed a comedy gospel musical in which Page starred, “Take It to the Lord ... Or Else.” He said Page had often used the phrase as a soothing accolade when close friends died.
Born in Cleveland and reared in St. Louis, Page began her career as a dancer and chorus girl billed as “the Bronze Goddess of Fire.” She soon became adept at stand-up comedy.
But her greatest fame began in her 50s, when childhood friend Redd Foxx asked her to join his Norman Lear sitcom adapted from the British series “Steptoe and Son.” Page signed on as Fred Sanford’s crusty sister-in-law, Esther Anderson, in 1973 and stayed until the series ended with Foxx’s departure in 1977.
As proprietor of the run-down Sanford Arms rooming house next door to Sanford’s junkyard, Aunt Esther was constantly at odds with Fred over his lifestyle, his business and how he treated his grown son, Lamont, played by Demond Wilson.
Page perfected the persona of a righteous, elderly woman who more than stood up for herself. She reprised the Aunt Esther role in two short-lived “Sanford and Son” spinoffs, “The Sanford Arms” in 1977 and Foxx’s own “Sanford” in 1980. She also made guest appearances on Foxx’s variety show, “The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour” in 1977.
Again as a mouthy matriarch, Page was a regular in another brief sitcom, “Detective School” in 1979, as one of the unlikely students trying to become a private eye. Similarly, she was Ma, owner of the cops’ favorite neighborhood restaurant in the brief 1980 series “B.A.D. Cats” (an acronym for Burglary Auto Detail, Commercial Auto Thefts), starring a little-known Michelle Pfeiffer as a police officer.
Page also appeared in such films as 1982’s “Zapped!” and Ice Cube’s “Friday” in 1995 and had guest roles on such television series as “Family Matters,” “In Living Color” and “Martin.”
In recent years, Page also made television commercials, including a well-received one for Atlanta-based Church’s Fried Chicken. To tout the chain’s honey-buttered biscuits, she was seen humorously milking a “bumblecow” that was adorned with bee’s wings and antennae, then deadpanning into the camera, “Hey, it could happen.”
Page is survived by her daughter, Clara Johnson, of Los Angeles, and sister, Lynn Hamilton.
Funeral arrangements are pending.