A look back at groundbreaking funnyman Redd Foxx's amazing career and his ironic death

By Joshua Rich
Updated October 09, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Big One, as Fred Sanford would have called it, had finally arrived. On Oct. 11, 1991, at age 68, comedian Redd Foxx suffered a fatal heart attack on the set of The Royal Family, the month-old show that was to mark a rebound for the former Sanford and Son star. It was an end so ironic that for a brief moment cast mates figured Foxx — whose ’70s TV character often faked coronaries — was kidding when he grabbed a chair and fell to the floor.

Beginning with 1955’s Laff of the Party, Foxx — born John Elroy Sanford — set the standard for caustic comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor by selling some 20 million X-rated ”party” records so racy that they were sometimes sold under the counter. It wasn’t until 1970, however, that the raspy-voiced humorist got his break, when TV producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin saw his performance in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem. Two years later, they cast him as a Los Angeles junk dealer in Sanford and Son.

Although it was white America’s first major exposure to the raunchy comedian, Foxx triumphed by toning down his persona about halfway; while his comedic style ”was not a shock, he wasn’t a Jack Benny” either, recalls Whitman Mayo, who played Fred’s friend Grady. Sanford and Son became a top 10 fixture during most of its six-season NBC run. Although some complained that the sitcom just rehashed old stereotypes of African Americans, it broke ground in a medium that had for decades trivialized minorities and the poor.

Foxx’s post-Sanford and Son life was a string of disappointments: his flopped ’77-78 variety show, the failed ’80-81 Sanford revival, a bankruptcy declaration in 1983, and the short-lived Redd Foxx Show in 1986. In 1989, a $3 million tax debt led the IRS to raid his home. After Foxx died, his passing was written into The Royal Family, but a revamped version of the show starring Jackee lasted just a handful of episodes. Still, frank comics from Eddie Murphy (who produced the series) to Chris Rock continue to look to Foxx for inspiration — proof that, even after the big one, his rare wit survives.

time capsule/oct. 11, 1991

AT THE MOVIES, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams as a Holy Grail-obsessed vagabond, reigns at the box office. Though he garnered his third Oscar nomination in five years, Williams wouldn’t take home a statuette until his Best Supporting Actor win for 1997’s Good Will Hunting.
ON TELEVISION, Roseanne leads the ratings; the controversial laugh queen recently entered the celebrity-host chat race when her talk show premiered Sept. 14.
IN MUSIC, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s ”Good Vibrations” is a hit, paving the way for the part-time Calvin Klein underwear model to take it all off as a porn prince in 1997’s Boogie Nights.
AND IN THE NEWS, Anita Hill’s sexual harassment testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas captivates Americans. Four days later, Thomas is confirmed by a 52-48 vote.