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

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.