July 31, 2003
Writers: Redd Still Gold on TV Land
Fred calls Lamont a "big dummy." Aunt Esther warns Fred to "Watch it, sucka!" Fred fakes a heart attack, crying out heavenward, "Elizabeth, I'm comin' to join you!"
Thirty years ago, when few representations of blacks appeared on television, "Sanford & Son," starring Redd Foxx, brought such gags into the pop culture lexicon. And for most of its 1972-1977 run, a couple of Jewish boys, Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, oversaw the writing on the top-rated African American sitcom. Today, "Sanford" is the second most-watched program among viewers age 25-54 on rerun cable outlet TV Land, trailing only its doppelganger -- the wholesome, decidedly white "The Andy Griffith Show."
As unassuming as it was, "Sanford & Son" -- created by Norman Lear, the man behind "All in the Family" -- was also something of a groundbreaker. It preceded Lear productions "Good Times" (1974) and "The Jeffersons" (1975) as the first true black sitcom. "Sanford," loosely based on the British "Steptoe & Son," hinged on the tension between Foxx's Fred Sanford, a crotchety, wisecracking South Central junk dealer, and son Lamont (Demond Wilson). Like other Lear sitcoms, "Sanford" married character-driven humor with edgy racial commentary. The show never left the Nielsen Top Ten.
Turteltaub and Orenstein came aboard as producers with the show's third season.
"The first meeting with Redd was very interesting," Turteltaub, 71, recalled, "because Redd was down in Mexico holding out for money."
But on the plane home, Foxx ran into good friends Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who had broken the color barrier by having the salty comedian open their Vegas shows.
"Redd admired Eydie," said Turteltaub, who, with wife Shirley, was good friends with her. Foxx discovered this, and had no choice but to embrace his new producers.
"Within three or four shows, we were great friends," Turteltaub said. "Redd was absolutely wonderful, tremendously talented," added Orenstein, 72.
The Hollywood-forged Turteltaub-Orenstein team has its roots back East. Turteltaub grew up in a middle-class Englewood, N.J. kosher home. After attending Columbia University Law School, Turteltaub landed writing gigs on shows like "Candid Camera." Meanwhile, Toronto-native Orenstein came to the United States in 1965 and began writing song parodies for Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. While writing on "Hollywood Palace," he met Turteltaub. The pair wrote for "That Girl" before segueing onto "Sanford."
"Partnerships in situation comedy are advantageous," Orenstein said. "I was stronger in story, Saul's a brilliant joke writer."
Their Jewishness often crept into "Sanford," such as the episode where Fred erroneously learns that his ancestors were Jewish. He visits Fairfax Avenue during that episode, written by the late Rabbi Joseph Feinstein of Beth Jacob Congregation.
"He was my rabbi at Beth Jacob," Turteltaub said, "and he had a great sense of humor."
Episode 97, "Steinberg and Son," flirted with downright surrealism when Fred and Lamont are tipped off to a sitcom, "Steinberg and Son," which features their Jewish counterparts. Anticipating a million-dollar lawsuit, an infuriated Fred demands to meet with producer "Bernie Taub" (an amalgam of Orenstein and Turteltaub). To Fred's surprise, Taub turns out to be black. He responds, ironically, that a black "Sanford" would never work. Fred deadpans at the camera.
Turteltaub and Orenstein enjoyed peppering the scripts with Jewish references.
"Redd knew because we were doing it that he was not stepping over the line," Orenstein said.
Unlike junk, political correctness had no value for Fred, which may be the essence of the show's appeal.
"In today's society, everyone's so concerned about not offending somebody," said TV Land General Manager Larry Jones. "For Fred, he just said it. It's freeing."
The writers, who went on to work for "Kate & Allie" and "The Cosby Show," continue to collaborate. The Turteltaubs, active in Jewish Los Angeles, celebrate their 43rd anniversary this month. Son Jon is a successful film director. Orenstein decided to attend college and pursue a history degree.
The writers look back fondly on their "Sanford" experience.
"Redd was very protective of me and Saul," Orenstein said. "The NAACP didn't think two Jews could write a black show. [Were they] implying that we could only write about two middle-age Jews?"
Reruns of "Sanford & Son" air weeknights on TV Land from 6-7 p.m. and 9 p.m.