With All in the Family reaping huge ratings and even huger controversy on CBS, producer Norman Lear was able to sell another "chancy" sitcom project to rival network NBC. Like Family, which was inspired by the British comedy series Till Death Us Do Part, Lear's Sanford and Son was based on a long-running Britcom, Steptoe and Son, the saga of two cockney junk dealers. Also like Family, Sanford debuted as a mid-season replacement, in this case supplanted the failed Jack Webb drama The D.A. Originally, Lear had planned to build his version of Sanford and Son around two Jewish characters, but the upsurge in (and demand for) more African-American faces on television emboldened the producer to change the leading roles from Jewish to black. Veteran nightclub comedian Redd Foxx was cast as the irascible Fred Sanford (Foxx's real name was in fact John Elroy Sanford), a 65-year-old junk dealer living and working in a racially mixed Los Angeles neighborhood. Fred's son and business partner, 25-year-old bachelor Lamont Sanford, was played by Demond Wilson, whom Lear had hired on the strength of a guest appearance on All in the Family. The basic Sanford and Son premise was established from the beginning, with the crotchety Fred comfortably settled in his just-getting-by junk business, commiserating with his buddies in his off hours, occasionally squiring his erstwhile fiancée, nurse Donna Harris (Lynn Hamilton), and spewing forth hilarious insults about everyone in general and other minority groups in particular. Although he loved and was devoted to his father, Lamont was forever seeking to better his life by looking beyond the junkyard, but whenever Lamont announced his intention of leaving the family business -- or, for that matter, whenever Lamont disagreed with his father on anything -- Fred would conveniently suffer a "heart attack," invoking the name of his late wife by clutching his chest, looking heavenward and shouting "I'm comin', Elizabeth!" As with any successful sitcom, Sanford and Son boasted a steady stream of supporting characters. In addition to the aforementioned Donna Harris, the series' first season yielded such peripheral personalities as police officers Smith (Hal Williams) and Swanhauser (Noam Pitlik), also known as Smitty and Swanny, and Fred's longtime buddy Melvin, played by Redd Foxx's onetime vaudeville partner Slappy White. Many of the first 14 Sanford and Son episodes were adapted from scripts originally written for its British prototype, Steptoe and Son. These scripts were not exactly word-for-word, given the fact that American television in A.D. 1972 was not quite ready for the frankness of its British counterpart, but the racy and sometimes ribald "flavor" was happily intact. Debuting Friday, January 14, 1972, Sanford and Son immediately "won" its Friday-night time slot, closing out its first season as America's sixth highest-rated program. The series would remain securely in the Top Ten list throughout its six-season run.
by Hal Erickson synopsis