Question: Who played Grady on Sanford and Son?
Televisionary: That was the late Whitman Mayo, who passed away in May 2001 at the age of 70, playing the Sanfords' neighbor Grady Wilson on the popular series, which ran on NBC from January 1972 to August 1976. And quite a job he did, considering how long he played the character when he was initially scheduled for just a one-shot performance.
Grady appeared in an October 1973 episode, accusing junk-man Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) of pilfering a TV set from him. Surprise — he went over so well that he stayed on, landed Grady (his own short-lived spin-off series) in 1975 and continued with the Sanford concept all the way through to the unsuccessful Sanford Arms, a sequel of sorts that featured the Sanford supporting cast after Foxx and Demond Wilson, who played Sanford son Lamont, departed over money and contract issues.
Mayo, who was only in his early forties when he played the sixtysomething Grady, moved on to a handful of movie and TV roles after Sanford (ER, Full House, Boyz N the Hood), but for the most part he disappeared. He did such a good job of hiding, in fact, that in 1996 when staffers at Late Night with Conan O'Brien attempted to talk to him about appearing in a sketch and couldn't make contact, the show started a "Grady Hot Line" so viewers could help track him down. (The strategy was a success — Mayo did eventually appear on the show.)
But unlikely success and popularity was a hallmark of the Sanford show; Foxx himself, born John Elroy Sanford (Fred was his brother), had a rough time of it in his younger years. Depending on whom you ask — biographers' versions of Foxx's background differ somewhat from the story the comedian told — Foxx left home as a youth and moved to New York to make it in entertainment. He washed dishes and worked in the garment district, sleeping on a Harlem rooftop when things got tight, and it was in that famous locale that he picked up the nickname Chicago Red, due to his light skin and red hair. (His pal Detroit Red, who shared his coloring, called Foxx "the funniest dishwasher on earth." That pal, it's worth noting, developed quite a following of his own later in life when he changed his name to Malcolm X.)
After cutting his teeth on the famous circuit of black comedy theaters in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago, Foxx made a name for himself with a series of ribald comedy records followed by some key network TV appearances. Those launched him into a $960,000-a-year deal with the Las Vegas Hilton, which is where Sanford creators Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin and Aaron Ruben caught his act after being tipped off by actor Cleavon Little that he was their leading man.
Foxx didn't forget where he came from, either. When Sanford and Son cast episodes, the comic would toss in names of people he'd worked with in his club days, acts like Tangerine Sublett, Leroy & Skillet and, most notably, LaWanda Page, an old schoolmate and comedy-circuit cohort. When he first pushed her for the part of arch-nemesis Aunt Esther Anderson, she was struggling, working in a South L.A. nightclub. She had trouble with her lines when she came in for a reading, but Foxx worked with her over the weekend, according to TV Guide. ("Bless you, Redd," she said when he offered to help. "I'm thinking about the bills I have to pay at home.") As fans know, whatever he did, it worked. Page returned the next week and the two of them created one of the funniest running battles in the history of TV comedy. ("You never heard of the lady," Foxx told a TV Guide writer, "but the night that first show of LaWanda's goes on the air, there'll be dancing in the streets in every ghetto in the United States.")
That wasn't the only place they were dancing. During its run, Sanford and Son, based on the British comedy Steptoe and Son, was a Top 10 show (not to mention a series that sported one of the best theme songs ever, a masterpiece by Quincy Jones). It's a shame the same old things that kill many a Hollywood success — money and respect (or lack of it) — had to get in the way of something that often worked so beautifully.