After Redd Foxx Died Without A Cent To His Name, A Famous Friend Gave Him The Send-off He Deserved

Redd Foxx was a ground-breaking stand-up comedian and actor. Indeed, his influence has been noted by fellow comics such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock and his legacy is still apparent today. But when he died, he’d fallen on hard times and barely had a nickel to his name. However, a famous friend stepped up to ensure Foxx had a fitting send-off.

Foxx became famous for his unique brand of comedy. It was full of profanity and touched heavily on adult and taboo topics, including sex and racism. He pushed the boundaries of what was possible — and indeed allowed — for a stand-up comic and was a trailblazer for minorities in America. The funnyman also starred in the popular NBC sitcom Sanford and Son in the 1970s.

Foxx was on the set of another sitcom, The Royal Family, in 1991 when he suddenly collapsed on set. The veteran comic was making a comeback of sorts after some very tough lean years. His co-star Della Reese prayed over his body, crying, “Don’t die Redd, don’t die.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But Foxx — a heavy smoker — would sadly succumb to the enormous heart attack a few hours later and passed away on Friday, October 11, 1991. It was a tragic end to the most colorful of lives. At the time, Foxx looked to be heading back to prominence after a remarkable fall from grace which saw him run into major trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.

Foxx had gotten himself into such a hole with his finances that he would be left with almost nothing. And the I.R.S. was particularly unforgiving of his plight. The one-time “King of Comedy’s” lifestyle had really caught up with him. And it would all ultimately lead to the most extraordinary of public scenes.

ADVERTISEMENT

So how did all this come to happen to Foxx? How did he go from being a bankable star to having barely a dollar to his name? Well, we will get to all the details of that very shortly. Firstly, though, we should rewind back to the very beginning and take a detailed look at the remarkable life and times of this comedy icon.

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx was born almost 100 years ago — on December 9, 1922. A native of Missouri, he was born in the Midwest state’s second largest city, St. Louis. As you may well have guessed, Redd Foxx was not his birth name, but a moniker he would pick up later.

ADVERTISEMENT

No, Foxx was born with the rather less exotic name of John Elroy Sanford. His father was a Kentucky-born man known as Fred Sanford. While his mother was a Mississippi woman with Seminole ancestry named Mary Hughes. Foxx was the couple’s second child and he had an older brother, Fred Jnr.

ADVERTISEMENT

Like many African-American children at the time, Foxx was born into a poor family. His father, who worked as a vehicle mechanic and electrician, walked out on the family when Foxx was four years old. He was raised by a combination of his mom, grandmother and a local church minister. Life, then, was far from easy.

ADVERTISEMENT

The young boy would acquire the nickname Redd early on in life, due to his red-tinged hair and his skin’s ruddy hue. In later years he adopted the surname that would become synonymous with his comedy. That name was taken from the legendary Hall of Fame baseball player Jimmie Foxx.

ADVERTISEMENT

At the tender age of 13, Foxx pulled up stakes and departed St. Louis for the bright lights of Chicago, Illinois. He attended Carter Elementary School and later the Jean Baptiste Du Sable High School in the Bronzeville area of the Windy City. Foxx earned some dollars on the side playing washboard in a local band.

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx’s spell in the band would last around three years. When they decided to disband, the teenager opted to take a train east to The City that Never Sleeps; New York City. It was whilst in NYC that Foxx would make an acquaintance with a young man named Malcolm Little, like Redd another sharp dresser with red hair.

ADVERTISEMENT

Little later rose to prominence in the burgeoning civil rights movement — where he was better known as Malcolm X. He would mention Foxx in his famous autobiography, which became a popular tome for African-Americans after his assassination in February 1965. Malcolm X duly noted Foxx’s sharp wit, writing, “Chicago Red, the funniest dishwasher on this earth.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx originally met Malcolm in the 1940s. The flame-haired funnyman had managed to avoid serving in World War II with an astonishing act. Before his medical assessment, Foxx chowed down on half a bar of soap. Doing so caused him to have heart palpitations, leading the military doctor to believe he had a serious issue with his ticker.

ADVERTISEMENT

With military service successfully dodged, Foxx turned his attention back to his music career. He co-founded a band with two guitarists would go on to support saxophonist Jimmie Lunceford at Harlem’s Apollo, but it didn’t last. Foxx then recorded a bunch of 78’s for the Savoy jazz label, including “Let’s Wiggle A Little Woogie,” “Lucky Guy” and “Redd Foxx Blues.”

ADVERTISEMENT

After a spell of doing odd-jobs just to keep his head above water, Foxx decided to try his luck with comedy. He worked on his act and began to get opportunities to perform in the predominantly black theaters and clubs. This network of nightclubs and auditoriums in the U.S. for African-Americans was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The Chitlin’ Circuit ran across the American south, through the Midwest and the eastern part of the country. Foxx began touring the circuit in 1951 — the same year he divorced his first wife, Evelyn Killebrew. In addition to performing solo, the naturally gifted funnyman teamed up with his childhood pal Slappy White in a double act known as “Redd and White.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx’s crude and candid comedy won him many friends on the circuit, where he often did his stand-up between performances by strippers. He got his big break after the famous jazz vocalist Dinah Washington caught wind of his act during an East Coast jaunt. Washington suggested that Foxx take his act west to Los Angeles.

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx followed Washington’s advice and when he performed in L.A.’s Brass Rail nightclub, he was watched by a certain Walter “Dootsie” Williams. The founder and owner of Dootone records, Williams was impressed by Foxx’s comic talents and duly signed him to his label. It would be the beginning of a fruitful partnership for the pair.

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx would go on to record a series of comedy performances for the Dootone label. His first LP, Laff of the Party, would become a cult hit, particularly with teens across America. Its vulgar, matter-of-fact style resonated with them in a big way. It was hardly a huge money-spinner for Foxx personally though, with the funnyman taking home just $25 for the record.

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx soon became the label’s most bankable comedy star, his no-holds-barred albums shifting thousands of units. He would go on to make over 50 comedy LPs with his prodigious productivity earning him the title, “King of the Party Records.” It was during this period that Foxx would meet and marry his second wife, the dancer and showgirl Betty Jean Harris.

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx’s audience grew steadily going in to the 1960s and in a landmark cultural moment, he performed in front of a white crowd in Las Vegas. However, his relationship with Dootsie Williams turned sour in 1963. Having sold close to 15 millions albums, Foxx felt he had little to show for it, later commenting that he was “robbed so bad, I just didn’t want to make any more.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx eventually moved to Frank Sinatra’s Loma record label in 1967. Throughout the 1960s his material became increasingly risqué and he regularly played Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater. However, by the end of the decade Foxx began to gravitate towards TV and acting. Even so, it was his appearances at the Apollo that would afford him his biggest audience to date.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s because the famed venue’s owner, a man named Bobby Schiffman, had the clout to secure Foxx a spot on The Tonight Show. He had to be on his best behavior and tone down the adult content of his routine considerably, though. Foxx’s appearance on the late night show was a success which led to further TV guest spots.

ADVERTISEMENT

After two minor cameo appearances in the TV series ABC Stage 67 and Valentine’s Day, Foxx was cast in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem. Based on the novel by Chester Himes, Foxx plays a junk man, Uncle Budd, in the comedic action thriller. His performance was well received and would ultimately lead to an even more famous role.

ADVERTISEMENT

Two people who were impressed by Foxx’s performance were producer Norman Lear and director Bud Yorkin. The pair had struck gold with the acclaimed sitcom All in the Family. Now they wanted to turn their hand to something that was considered for the time: a mainstream TV show about a black junk dealer and his wayward son.

ADVERTISEMENT

The show was, of course, Sanford and Son. Foxx agreed to do it on the basis of two promises: that his character would take the name of his father and older brother and he would not be using clichéd African-American dialect. Thus, the iconic Fred G. Sanford was born.

ADVERTISEMENT

Based on the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, the NBC show first aired in 1972 and soon became a big hit with audiences. In fact, the comedy was so popular it was among the top ten rated shows nearly every week and was nominated for an Emmy only three months into its run. Foxx’s comic gifts and chemistry with his co-stars Demond Wilson and Lawanda Page was evident throughout. Sanford and Son brought black humor to primetime viewers.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sanford and Son would run for 135 episodes across six seasons, during which its gritty, racially charged comedy garnered four Golden Globe and three Emmy nominations. Foxx would take home the 1973 Globe for Best Comedic TV Actor. However, it was not always rosy on set as the funnyman would walk out of the series in season three due to a contract row.

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx returned after his contract was renegotiate but eventually left for good in 1977 when he was offered his own variety show by ABC. However, Redd Foxx would be a short-lived flop — only two episodes were aired before it was cancelled. The comedian’s financial problems began to mount too, despite him earning some serious dollars during this period.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s because Foxx was a big spender who managed his finances poorly. People reported that one financial year he raked in $4 million only to squander it due to his extravagant way of life. His financial struggle was compounded by a series of expensive divorces, with Foxx having to outlay significant sums — somewhere in the region of half a million — to free himself from his second and third wives, Betty Jean and Joi.

ADVERTISEMENT

Foxx returned to primetime in 1980, reprising his role as Fred in the short-lived sequel Sanford. However, it couldn’t reprise the magic of the original series and was cancelled after two brief seasons. The work began to dry up and Foxx’s lavish ways caught up with him. So much so, that in 1983 he would officially declare himself bankrupt.

ADVERTISEMENT

From 1983 to 1986 Foxx ran up a tax bill of an eye-watering $755,166.21. Unsurprisingly, the I.R.S. took a dim view of this sizeable chunk of change going unpaid. Foxx hadn’t exactly helped himself by establishing a reputation of being difficult to work with. However, he did appear as Al Hughes in 13 episodes of The Redd Foxx Show in 1986, and in the TV movie Ghost of a Chance a year later.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the late 1980s — in the middle of all his financial woes — Foxx surprisingly gained a significant career break from an unexpected benefactor. One of the comedian’s most prominent admirers was Hollywood superstar Eddie Murphy who courted Foxx for a part in the movie he was writing and directing. The movie, period crime comedy Harlem Nights, starred Murphy and featured another of Foxx’s fans, Richard Pryor.

ADVERTISEMENT

While Harlem Nights was hardly a roaring critical success, it did well at the box office and gave Foxx’s career the shot in the arm it needed. His performance as a grumpy croupier effectively put him back on the map and would ultimately lead to him landing a role in a new TV series. But before that, Foxx would suffer a huge embarrassment.

ADVERTISEMENT

On November 28, 1989, the patience of the I.R.S. with Foxx’s unpaid tax bill finally ran out. Government agents turned up at his Las Vegas home and raided it for all it was worth. They seized all his vehicles — including a Model T Ford, a Panther J72, a Zimmer and Vespa scooter — and belongings, including his jewelry, personal items and furniture.

ADVERTISEMENT

The law’s humiliation of Foxx was such that the veteran comic was shown on news bulletins outside his raided home in only his underpants. He later bemoaned his treatment at the hands of the I.R.S., telling People, “They took my necklace and the ID bracelet off my wrist and the money out of my pocket. “I was treated like I wasn’t human.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Nonetheless, despite his very public humbling and asset stripping, Foxx went on to land the lead role of retiree Al Royal on the new sitcom The Royal Family. It was to be a short-lived experience, however, as the funnyman would tragically collapse and die on set on October 11, 1991. The manner of his death was cruelly ironic, given that his most famous character, Fred Sanford, regularly grasped his chest and feigned heart attacks for comic effect.

ADVERTISEMENT

With little money to his name — and some reports suggesting that he owed a whopping $3.6 million in taxes when he died — it seemed unlikely Foxx would get much of a send-off. But somehow, he did. So, how was that possible? Well, almost 30 years later, the truth finally came out. In an interview with Vanity Fairin January 2020, Eddie Murphy revealed, “I buried Redd Foxx. I literally had to… For some strange reason, a lot of people in show business, when they die, they don’t have their stuff in order.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Murphy continued, [I’ve] buried a lot of famous people—if you only knew. Redd Foxx, I had to physically pay for his funeral, and buy his headstone and do all that stuff.” Finally, the Trading Places actor expressed his affection for his fellow funnyman to Vanity Fair, stating “We were close, and I did love Redd Foxx.” Of course, Murphy is far from alone in adoring the roguish comic genius. While Foxx may have departed this world decades ago, his legacy lives on.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT