Friday, October 14, 2011

One Across His Lip

I absolutely love “Sanford & Son”.  It was/is my favorite TV show (on earth, in this hemisphere, as Fred would say), thus I’ve been anxious to read Demond Wilson’s 2009 tell-all book, entitled Second Banana: The Bitter Sweet Memoirs of the Sanford & Son Years.  I was very much looking forward to learning about all the behind-the-scenes dirt on “S&S”, as well as getting to know a bit more about Wilson himself, who’s always been a bit mysterious to me, to the point where I went ahead and shelled out $25 (plus 10 more for shipping) and bought the book directly from DW’s website because I got tired of waiting to find it cheaper on Amazon or eBay (or at Fred’s junkyard, maybe?).  Hell, I couldn’t even find any libraries that carry the book.  Now I wish I’d held out a bit longer…

I know I’m going to sound like some old uptight anal high school English teacher here, but I was majorly disappointed by this sophomoric effort because it’s brimming with typos (starting with the subtitle of the book itself—‘Bitter Sweet’ should be all ONE word!), poor grammar/sentence structure and random/unorganized and/or repetitive thoughts.  Didn’t anyone bother to proofread this thing before it went to press?!?  My first impression of the book was also not helped by the format they used—it’s hardcover with 107 pages, but the 9” x 12” size with small double-spaced print on the pages (not to mention the canary-yellow cover) make it seem like those old Curious George volumes I used to read in second grade!  The actual text would barely even fill 50 pages of a regular-sized paperback.  There might at least be some excuse for the amateurish nature of Second Banana if this was Wilson’s first published work, but he has, in fact, authored several other books prior to this one, which actually resembles a rough draft rather than a finished product.  Demond, buddy, with all due respect, I’m sure you had the best of intentions with this book, but for what I paid for it, I can’t help but feel a tad ripped-off here.  I think you came down with a case of Fred’s infamous “Author-itis.”

Sample some of the FUBARs here…

--The intro piece on the back cover mentions that ‘70s fashion staple “leisure suites” and something about “keep-sake” photos.

--Nearly every time Demond makes reference to a deceased person in the book, there’s an unnecessary “RIP” attached to it.  While there’s certainly nothing wrong with honoring those who are no longer with us, this got kinda old after a while.

--In reference to his early comedic influences, Wilson talked about the Marx Brothers:  The synchronized off-the-wall wacky routines of the Marx Brothers was priceless, especially in the (zany) team’s riotous comeback film, A Night At The Opera.  First off, it should be ‘were priceless’ instead of ‘was priceless’, and secondly, why is ‘zany’ in parentheses at all?  Another example:  Prior to the “Amos n’ Andy Show”, blacks were portrayed in movies and on television programs as domestic sidekicks like “The (50s) Beulah (a maid) Show”.  WTF?!?  He does this parentheses thing throughout the book for no apparent reason, thus readability is a major issue here.  And here’s an incomplete sentence for you:  My agent at the time a gentleman named David Graham, who later became a top motion picture casting agent.  That’s all he wrote, literally.  Come on, dude...

--In crediting the former cast of “S&S”, he lists the females as “M’s Lynn Hamilton” and “M’s LaWanda Page”.  The only M’s I’ve ever been familiar with are the Seattle Mariners!

And then there are the misspelled names.  We had former President Richard Millhouse Nixon (twice), legendary pugilist Mohammed Ali (twice), actress Adrian Barbou, singer Glenn Campbell, actress Nancy Culp, entertainer Sonny Bonno, singer Edie Gorme’, musician Canonball Adderly, famed Hollywood Square Rosemarie, screen siren Mae Wes and former LA Lakers great Hap Harriston.  On behalf of Richard Milhous Nixon, Mohammad Ali, Adrienne Barbeau, Glen Campbell, Nancy Kulp, Sonny Bono, Eydie Gorme, Cannonball Adderley, Rose Marie, Mae West and Happy Hairston—dare I say it?—YOU BIG DUMMY!!!

As for the content of the book, I was also very disappointed that Wilson barely made mention of fellow cast members like Hamilton and Page, as well as Don “Bubba” Bexley, Nathaniel Taylor (Rollo), Gregory Sierra (Julio) and Pat Morita (Aw Chew), et al, or even Julio’s beloved pet goat, Chico.  He did speak briefly about the late Whitman Mayo, who played Grady Wilson (Demond’s real life full name is Grady Demond Wilson, btw), but that discussion was limited to the block of episodes where Mayo subbed for Redd Foxx during his infamous 1974 contract dispute/holdout during which he demanded Carroll O’Connor-like money, not to mention windows in the rehearsal hall to relieve his claustrophobia.  One thing that did please me was that Wilson didn’t get preachy in this book, being as he became a minister after his “S&S” days.  I was actually impressed that he made an effort to avoid spouting off religious platitudes, and chose to keep things secular, for the most part.  He even still used language like “shit” and “Niggas”, which surprised me.

Wilson, who in fact turned 65 just yesterday, went to great pains throughout the book seemingly to avoid saying anything really nasty about Redd Foxx, even when Foxx behaved inappropriately or acted like a jerk towards Demond or other people in some way.  It’s already a foregone conclusion that Redd Foxx was no angel, and although he did a lot of great things in his life and career, it’s almost as if Demond Wilson feels some need to be protective of Foxx’s memory.  As much as I love Redd’s work (both as Fred Sanford as well as his legendary X-rated comedy records), he always came across to me off-screen/off-stage as a bitter old asshole with a chip on his shoulder.  It’s understandible, to a degree, given all the bullshit and bigotry Foxx encountered in his early life and career, but once he did become successful and made beaucoup money, he pissed most of it away on drugs, alcohol and women, not to mention the I.R.S. To wit, many of his trials and tribulations were of his own doing.

One of the more interesting stories Demond told was how during some celebrity function in the '70s, “…Redd got into a verbal confrontation with Bea Arthur, who was starring in a short-lived Tandem (Productions) series called ‘Maude’”  Short-lived?  Uhhh, dude, “Maude” aired from 1972-78, lasting a full year longer than “Sanford & Son” did, so I hardly call that short-lived.  Anyway, wouldn’t you love to have seen Redd Foxx and Bea Arthur duking it out in the boxing ring?  Given the disparity of their sizes—short and stocky Foxx vs. tall and lanky Arthur—it gives me visions of Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago!  Arthur would’ve probably killed Foxx, and then undoubtedly turned to her “Maude” co-star Ms. Barbou—er uh, Barbeau, and exclaimed, “Yo, Adrienne—I did it!”  But I digress…

As for the show itself, “Sanford & Son” is the one sitcom that made me laugh out-loud harder than any other from its era.  Still does today, too, even though I’ve seen every episode 100 times and can recite the dialogue verbatim.  Sure, it was a silly show, but good goobly-goop, it was damn funny, and Fred G. Sanford is my favorite TV character ever.  I was always home on Friday nights in the ‘70s anyway, so I never missed an episode, except during Foxx’s contract dispute hiatus in the 3rd season, anyway—Grady was just no substitute.  Fred’s constant barbs at Aunt Esther and “Porter-Rican” neighbor Julio, his various get-rich-quick schemes (often with Grady or Bubba aiding and abetting) and innumerable “Elizabeth, I’m comin’ to join you, honey!” faux heart attacks were classic stuff.  Demond Wilson was a great piece of casting, too, as long-suffering/overworked/beleaguered-yet-faithful son Lamont, and he turned out to be the ideal straight-man opposite Foxx’s over-the-top junkman character and the two worked quite well together.

I think my favorite aspect of the show were Fred’s brilliant comebacks.  A few examples…

Lamont:  “Hey, Pop—you asleep?”
Fred:  “No, I’m just checkin’ my eyelids for cracks!”

Lamont (after calculating Fred’s cumulative lifetime cigarette consumption):  “Pop, since you was 10, you smoked a cigarette 41 miles long!”
Fred (proudly):  “That’s real Super King-Size, ain’t it?”

Aunt Ethel:  "You look ridiculous!"
Fred:  "Ethel, I fell off a truck...what's your excuse?"

Lamont’s poker-playing friend:  “And you must be Papa Sanford!”
Fred:  “No, I’m Mama Cass!”

Mary the house maid:  “Mutton—do you like boiled mutton?”
Fred:  “Does anybody?”

Mae Hopkins (in a huff):  “Well, I never!!”
Fred:  “I bet you did!”

Con Man:  “I’d rather cut off a leg than go back on my word, right, Mr. Sanford?”
Fred:  “Right, Stumpy.”

Fred’s cousin (describing his overweight daughter):  “There’s more to Betty Jean than meets the eye.”
Fred:  “There can’t be!”

Otis (bargaining for Fred’s pool table):  "I thought you said that's how much it would cost in a store!"
Fred:  “Whatchu think I’m runnin’ here, a taco stand?!?”

Rollo:  "How you feelin', Pops?"
Fred:  "I feel with my hands like I always do!"

Committeeman:  “Mr. Sanford, you are out of order!”
Fred:  “And so’s the toilet down the hall!”

Lamont:  “You’re a dirty old man, you know that?”
Fred:  “And I’m gonna be one ‘til I’m a dead old man!”

Nelson B. Davis (funeral director):  “You must excuse my cold hand--cold hand, warm chapel.  That's a little joke in my profession.”
Fred:  “That’s funny as a train wreck. Now, THAT’ll get you some business…”

Fred:  “I suggest you acupuncture your bill.”
Acupuncture doctor:  “What do you mean?”
Fred:  “Stick it!”

Lamont:  “Pop, what’s that horse doing in the kitchen?”
Fred:  “How should I know?  You saw him last…”

Pretty much all the episodes from the first three seasons of “Sanford & Son” with Foxx in them are classics and there were indeed a few gems in seasons four and five after Foxx returned from his holdout, but by the final season in ’76-‘77, it was clear the show was running on fumes.  I wouldn’t say the “Jump The Shark” point was Foxx’s contact dispute, per se, but it wasn’t long after that when the show started circling the drain.  As Demond Wilson states in the book, it didn’t help that the show’s original producer and director (Bud Yorkin and Aaron Ruben, respectively) were replaced by a pair of Jewish producers/writers (Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein).  For an all-Jewish sitcom, these guys undoubtedly would’ve excelled, but on an all-black show like “S&S”, it was a bad combination.  Before long, they resorted to typical sitcom-killing desperation gambits like featuring the cast members singing and dancing, cameo appearances by celebrity guest stars playing themselves (Steve Lawrence/Eydie Gorme, Merv Griffin, Della Reese, B.B. King, George Foreman, et al) and weird concept episodes like having Fred and Lamont acting as spies in Nazi Germany (“Sergeant Gork”) and an adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Fred as Scrooge (“Ebenezer Sanford”).  Foxx himself even played himself on an episode where Fred enters a Redd Foxx look-alike contest ("Fred Meets Redd"), but it was pretty lame.

Basically, they started messing with the formula that had worked so well and the show seemed strained and hackneyed toward the end, reaching its nadir with an episode (“Funny, You Don’t Look It”) where Fred suddenly thinks he’s of Jewish descent.  Of all people, did they really expect us to think that Fred G. Sanford—as proud a black man as there ever was—would for even a nanosecond think he was a Jew?  Riiiiight.  That episode makes cringe every time I watch it.  It was also readily apparent by that final season that both Wilson and Foxx were bored and ready to move on to other things.  Wilson often wore dark shades that season to mask his cocaine usage while he blandly delivered his lines with his thumb in his vest pocket most of the time.  Foxx seemingly phoned in his performances too, and the mere fact that he willingly did an episode like the Jewish debacle I just mentioned tells me he didn’t give a shit anymore.

Redd Foxx left NBC for his own tepid ABC variety show in the fall of ’77, the main claim to fame of which was that semi-annoying Raymond J. “But ya doesn’t have to call me” Johnson recurring character.  Demond Wilson moved on to the CBS sitcom “Baby I’m Back”, but it didn’t last long either.  He later teamed with “Barney Miller” alum Ron Glass in the TV revival “The New Odd Couple” during the ‘80s.  Meanwhile, Tandem Productions tried to salvage the Sanford “empire” (get it?  junk/salvage) with the short-lived “Sanford Arms” in the fall of ’77.  The initial plan was for Demond Wilson to star in the show, but he wanted too much money, so they brought in the late Theodore Wilson (no relation) to run Fred’s rooming house next door, the luxurious Sanford Arms.  Considering this used to be Julio’s house which Fred once referred to as a “death trap”, I fail to see how they could’ve converted it into a hotel, much less gotten anyone to pay money to stay next door to a junkyard (in Watts, no less), but I digress.  Anyway, Aunt Esther, Bubba, Grady and Uncle Woody hung around, but “Arms” only lasted four episodes before landing in the junkyard at 9114 S. Central.  Also residing there is the long-forgotten “Grady” spinoff that ran briefly in ’75-’76.  Loved Grady to death, but he’s best if taken in small doses, not as a lead character.

Three years later, the fish-eyed fools at NBC somehow coaxed that old heathen Redd Foxx into reprising his famed role on “Sanford”, this time minus “Son”, as Demond Wilson wanted no part in doing a sequel.  Only Rollo returned from the original show, and Lamont was replaced by rotund hick Cal (played by Dennis Burkley), who supposedly worked with Lamont on the Alaska Pipeline before returning to L.A. to become Fred’s business partner/comic foil.  Aunt Esther, Hoppy and Smitty all dropped in here and there, too, but it just wasn’t the same, and Foxx looked like he’d aged about two decades in the three-years since “S&S” went off the air.  The new show seemed like a great idea at the time, but looking back now, they should’ve just left Fred in the ‘70s where he belonged.  “Sanford” lasted longer than it probably should have (26 episodes over two seasons), due mostly to the dearth of decent NBC programming, as they were still in the death throes of their moribund early’ 80s “Pink Lady & Jeff”/“Manimal”/“SuperTrain” ratings desperation era, a few years before “Cheers”, “Hill Street Blues” and “The Cosby Show” resurrected the Peacock Network.

A few more random thoughts…Here’s the real-life 9114 S. Central in Watts (where the telephone pole sits).  No Sanford.  No Son.  Not even &.  Another curiosity for me is the storefront shown in the opening title sequence, which looks nothing like the Sanford estate on the show itself.  And what about the Sanford “junk-pire” itself?  How the hell were Fred and Lamont able to remain in business—let alone Fred being named Watts Businessman of the Year—when they seemingly never had any customers and were perpetually broke?  There was talk of a “Sanford & Son” theatrical film a couple years back with the late Bernie Mac in the title role, but his death brought that to a screaming halt.  Just as well, because there is no other S-A-N-F-O-R-D, period!