Throughout the history of television, there have been many legendary comedic legends that starred on groundbreaking sitcoms. Such legends included Lucille Ball on “I Love Lucy”: Andy Griffith on “The Andy Griffith Show”: Dick Van Dyke on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”: Freddie Prinze on “Chico and The Man”: Bill Cosby on “The Cosby Show”: Jerry Seinfeld on “Seinfeld.” As great as these actors were in portraying their characters on their shows, there were three actors who’s portrayal of their characters trumps the aforementioned ones. I will explain why Jackie Gleason, Carroll O’Connor and Redd Foxx and the characters they played stand alone as the three greatest iconic comedic figures in television history.
One of the early superstars doing the infancy of television was Jackie Gleason. In the early 1950’s, Gleason hosted a highly rated variety show named after himself on CBS. “The Jackie Gleason Show” centered on Gleason and his cast of actors in multiple comedy skits. The most popular of these skits were centered around a Brooklyn bus driver, played by Gleason, and his interactions with his wife and best friend. In the fall of 1955, that popular skit became a stand alone, weekly sitcom. “The Honeymooners” premiered on October 1, 1955. It set the standard for a comedic leading man.
Gleason played Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden. Kramden was a bombastic, overbearing man who always got involved with his best friend and neighbor Ed Norton in one hair brained scheme after another. On several occasions, Kramden and Norton would attempt get rich money schemes. Each time, they would fail. Kramden would explode in anger towards Norton and then have to explain to his wife how he blew the little money they had on one bad investment after another. Art Carney as Ed Norton and Audrey Meadows as Ralph’s wife Alice perfectly complimented Gleason’s Kramden in their interplay with him. Carney as the bumbling Norton was a naïve man with good intentions. Meadows as Alice was a woman who time and time again would be disappointed by Ralph, yet their love was so strong that she always forgave him. Almost every episode ended with Ralph apologizing to Alice for letting her down and her lovingly forgiving him. Although the show only lasted 39 episodes because of Gleason’s extremely busy schedule, the show set a standard with the comedic timing between Carney and Gleason. Gleason’s Kramden was the overbearing comedic lead that became a staple of sitcoms to this day. Ralph Kramden was such an iconic figure that in 2000, a statue of Kramden was unveiled outside New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square.
When speaking of overbearing comedic leads, Carroll O’Connor’s iconic Archie Bunker was the most overbearing of them all. “All in the Family” was the very first sitcom to tackle sensitive social issues with O’Connor portraying a racist, sexist and insensitive Queens cabdriver. A sitcom based around a racist, ignorant middle aged man sounded like a recipe for disaster. The reason it became a legendary show was the way O’Connor portrayed Bunker. O’Connor brought to life just how ignorant Bunker was in the way he delivered his racist views. Whether it was calling Blacks “colored” or his liberal Polish-American son-in-law a “Polack,” the viewers saw just how incredibly stupid Archie Bunker really was. Also, his character being the way he was would shed a light politically on such issues as racism, the Vietnam War, segregation and immigration. No television show had ever broached such subject matter. The biggest irony of O’Connor’s portrayal of Archie Bunker was the fact that in real life, O’Connor was a liberal Democrat, the exact opposite of Bunker’s conservative Republican. O’Connor knew that by playing Bunker the way he did, issues that he needed addressed would be addressed in front of millions of people each week.
“All in the Family” premiered on CBS January 12, 1971. It ran for nine seasons before being renamed “Archie Bunker’s Place” and ran another four seasons. In the 13 seasons that the character Archie Bunker was on television, viewers saw his character evolve from a racist, ignorant bigot to a man who began to see the errors of his way. He stopped ordering his doting wife, played by the incredible Jean Stapleton, Edith around like she was his slave. He began to respect his son-in-law Mike, played with intense passion by future legendary director Rob Reiner, and his political views. He adopted his Jewish niece, became business partners with a Jewish man, and defended his Black maid against a group of racists. Throughout the 1970’s, the only other character in a network sitcom that was on that level was the single, greatest African-American character of all time: Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford.
Redd Foxx was a legendary comedian who many felt would be too raw for television. He was one of the innovators of raunchy, sexually explicit comedy. Norman Lear, the creator of “All in the Family,” wanted a Black version of Archie Bunker and felt Foxx was the perfect actor to bring such a character to the screen. Redd Foxx real name was John Sanford and as a tribute to his deceased brother had his character on “Sanford and Son” Fred Sanford named after him. Fred Sanford, like Ralph Kramden and Archie Bunker, was an overbearing man who constantly yelled and insulted his friends and family. Like Bunker, he harbored prejudicial views about other ethnicities. Fred Sanford was also similar to Ralph Kramden when it came to getting involved in get rich quick schemes. These schemes would be in concert with his bumbling friends Grady and/or Bubba. Sanford owned a junkyard outside his house in South Central Los Angeles that he ran with his son Lamont. Lamont, played by Demond Wilson, was a kind man who more often than not had to bail his father out of trouble. Like Ralph Kramden’s wife Alice or Archie Bunker’s wife Edith, Lamont was the one person who was able to calm his volatile father down with love and reasoning. Foxx was the first actor in a sitcom to ad-lib many of his lines. The reason he did this so often was because most of the writing staff were Jewish writers who had no concept of Black life in South Central Los Angeles. Eventually, he was able to bring in legendary comedians Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney to write for the show. “Sanford and Son“ debuted on January 14, 1972, and was NBC’s biggest hit until Foxx left the show in 1977.
Like Bunker with his son-in-law Mike, Sanford had a comedic foil who he was always at odds with in his sister-in-law played by Lawanda Paige, Aunt Esther. Sanford called her several derrogatory names such as “Barricuda” and “Ugly Gorilla.” One of the single, funniest moments on the show occurred with an ad-lib out of nowhere. In the very last scene of the episode entitled “There Will Be Some Change Made,” Foxx swiped Paige’s wig off her head and ran off the set. Paige was visibly upset as she took chase after the mischievous Foxx. As soon as the wig came off, Wilson began laughing uncontrollably. Years later, Paige was asked if she felt insulted and violated by Foxx’s spontaneity in that scene. She started crying. Not because she was offended, she was crying because of the deep love she had for Foxx.
There were many similarities shared by Gleason, O’Connor, and Foxx. All three were in their late 40’s when they began their iconic runs. All three played overbearing, cantankerous characters who became beloved by television audiences because of the vulnerability shown by each actor in their characters. All three, despite their angry demeanors, loved their wives unconditionally(Sanford’s wife died when their son Lamont was a young boy. Whenever Sanford needed to get out of a lie he told Lamont, he’d feint a heart attack and say his most famous line “Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you!”). In the over 70 years of network television, no other sitcom characters come close to the impact that these actors portrayed.