Comedy: Redd Foxx Traces his Ancestry back to Ethiopia
Early life and career
Foxx was born in St. Louis, Missouri and raised on Chicago’s South Side. His mother was part Seminole, making Foxx one quarter Seminole. His father, an electrician, left the family when Foxx was four. He was raised by his mother, his minister, and his grandmother. He briefly attended DuSable High School with future Chicago mayor Harold Washington, but never graduated. Moving to New York in the early 1940s, he was a well-known associate of Malcolm Little (later known as Malcolm X). According to Malcolm’s autobiography, Foxx was a dishwasher in the speakeasy where Malcolm worked as a waiter. (While Little was known as “Detroit Red”, having grown up in Michigan, Foxx was dubbed “Chicago Red”, due to his reddish hair and complexion. His second stage name was taken from baseball star Jimmie Foxx.)
Foxx gained notoriety with his nightclub act (considered by many to be raunchy). His stand-up performances were later released as “party” albums and became very popular. Foxx paved the way for later black comedians such as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.
Sanford and Son
The character of Fred Sanford was named after Foxx’s own brother, Fred, who had died. Foxx was in his early 50s when he played the 65 year old Sanford.
He was also one of the first black comics to play to white audiences on the Las Vegas Strip. Foxx used his starring role on Sanford and Son to help get jobs for his friends such as LaWanda Page, Slappy White, and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita. Foxx also battled with producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin for higher paychecks and creative control of the show. Writer Alan Rafkin touched on some of Foxx’s clashes with Lear and Yorkin in the book Cue the Bunny on the Rainbow. Foxx does not appear in six episodes at the end of the third season, and three at the beginning of the fourth, because of problems with producers. “Fred Sanford’s” best friend “Grady”, played by Whitman Mayo, took his place.
Foxx appeared ringside at the famous boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner (the match that inspired actor Sylvester Stallone to write the movie Rocky) near Cleveland, Ohio in 1975. Foxx also served as co-commentator.
Post-Sanford and Son career and personal woes
In 1977, Sanford and Son was cancelled and Foxx struck out on his own by starring in a short-lived variety show, but by the early 1980s he was back playing Fred Sanford in a brief revival/spin-off, Sanford.
Foxx appeared to be making a comeback with the 1991 series The Royal Family, in which he co-starred with his long-time friend Della Reese. During a break from rehearsals on October 11, 1991, a fatal heart attack felled him on the set. Reportedly, Reese and the rest of the cast and crew thought he was doing his classic (and in this case, ironic) “I’m coming, Elizabeth” fake heart attack routine he made famous on Sanford and Son, even going as far as collapsing to the floor, although that was not part of the usual schtick. However, this heart attack was real, and Foxx never regained consciousness. He was 68 years old.
Foxx was given a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame on May 17, 1992.
A few years after Foxx’s death several buyers of his home claimed his property was ‘haunted’ by him. Some people have even gone as far as claiming Foxx faked his death because he still owed the IRS money. Martin Lawrence poked fun at these claims on the pilot of his sitcom. He said, “The man is faking it. What would you do if you owed 16 billion dollars in taxes”?
Comedian Chris Rock cites Redd Foxx as an influence. An episode of his show Everybody Hates Chris shows young Chris Rock overhearing his parents’ Redd Foxx albums and getting started doing stand-up through retelling the jokes at school.