Sanford And Son Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

"Sanford and Son" was a colossal hit for NBC in the 1970s as well as show creator Norman Lear's response to his other hit show "All in the Family." Both series followed a grumpy patriarch whose bigoted perspectives often frustrated their more progressive children, depicting the generation gap between baby boomers and their more traditional parents. The sitcom followed Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his son Lamont (Demond Wilson) who ran a junkyard in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

"Sanford and Son" laid the foundation for numerous series with predominantly Black casts that followed in the wake of its success. Ted Bergman, a scriptwriter for "Sanford and Son," argued the sitcom was groundbreaking because it "started a trend toward more realism in television. Things were being talked about that were not being talked about before" (via Emmy magazine). However, a Black writer and critic named Eugenia Collier said otherwise in an article for The New York Times, calling the series "white to the core" while arguing that it perpetuated damaging racial stereotypes.

Despite criticisms, "Sanford and Son" remained in the top 10 every season, and helped reshape the television landscape, leading to more representation of Black characters. Although the series ended in 1977, it has lived on through syndication and streaming. Considering it left the airways so long ago, you may have forgotten who starred in the series. Keep reading as we pay tribute to the "Sanford and Son" actors you may not know passed away.

Redd Foxx

John Elroy Sanford was born in St. Louis on December 9, 1922, and moved to Chicago at age 13. Three years later, he moved to Harlem, where he befriended the man who would become Malcolm X while working together. In Harlem, he also began performing comedy in Black venues and on the Chitlin Circuit, under the stage name Redd Foxx.

In the '50s, Foxx moved to Los Angeles and made raunchy party records. In the '60s, he found mainstream success doing stand-up in Las Vegas. Although Foxx is best known for his lead role as Fred Sanford on the hit series "Sanford and Son," he is widely regarded as a stand-up comedy trailblazer. "No one expected me to be on television because I had a reputation from the party records as X-rated, but that's the type of humor I liked," he said in an interview.

Foxx died of a heart attack at age 68 in 1991, during rehearsals on the set of his CBS series "The Royal Family." In response to news of his death, Slappy White told The New York Times, "The comedy world is going to miss him. He broke a lot of barriers." Friends remember Foxx for his generous nature, as Ruth Brown told NYT: "Redd would do anything for a friend." Unfortunately, this generosity coupled with his lavish lifestyle led to Foxx declaring bankruptcy, and having property seized by the IRS.

LaWanda Page

LaWanda Page was born in Cleveland, Ohio on October 19, 1920, but was raised in St. Louis — where she was childhood friends with Redd Foxx. She began dancing in her teens and performed with a fire dancing act on the Chitlin Circuit, earning her the nickname "the Bronze Goddess of Fire." In the 1960s, Page transitioned from dancing to comedy after moving to LA and joining the comedy group Skillet, Leroy & Co.

Her big break came when Foxx secured Page an audition for the role of Aunt Esther on "Sanford and Son." She became an audience favorite, playing Fred's sharp-tongued, bible-thumping sister-in-law. She reprised the role in both short-lived spin-offs, "Sanford Arms" and "Sanford," and she continued acting after her time playing Aunt Esther ended. Throughout her career, Page advocated for fair pay for Black performers. She died from diabetes complications in 2002 when she was 81.

Nathaniel Taylor

Nathaniel Taylor was born on March 31, 1938, and shared his birthplace of St. Louis with Redd Foxx. Taylor worked as an electrician before he was cast as Lamont's best friend, Rollo, in "Sanford and Son." Taylor starred in 32 episodes of the hit series and reprised his role in the short-lived spin-off "Sanford." Taylor continued acting in shows like "What's Happening!!" and "227," and blaxploitation films like "Willie Dynamite" and "Trouble Man."

Taylor later founded a performing arts studio in Los Angeles where he taught acting. He died at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center in Los Angeles of a heart attack in 2019. He was 80 years old. Taylor's son Kaedi said his father enjoyed being recognized as Rollo: "It was a time and an era — just to be on TV as a black man," Kaedi told The Los Angeles Times. "It was an honor for people to remember him."

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Alonzo "Lonzo" Williams, a music promoter and friend of Taylor, said, "He was always there with a wise word and a kind word and a joke to put a little icing on it."

Gregory Sierra

Gregory Sierra was born on January 25, 1937, and was raised by his aunt in Spanish Harlem. After completing his service in the Air Force, Sierra accompanied a friend to an audition for an acting school and was invited to join instead. He began his acting career in New York on the stage and became a member of the National Shakespeare Company. Sierra moved to Los Angeles in the '60s to pursue a screen acting career.

Sierra was best known for playing Detective Sergeant Miguel "Chano" Amenguale in "Barney Miller," but he was memorable as Fred Sanford's Puerto Rican neighbor and rival, Julio Fuentes, on "Sanford and Son." He once told The Morning Record that he used his uncle for inspiration for the role: "I used him not only as a model but the namesake of the character I played on 'Sanford and Son.'" 

Sierra was also in the original cast of "Miami Vice," but he left the series, and his character was subsequently killed off. "He did not like Miami and some of the people he worked with," his wife told The New York Times. "He gave up a lot to leave the show." Sierra worked steadily in films and television throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s. He died from cancer in 2021 at 83 years old.

Fritzi Burr

Fritzi Burr was a native of Philadelphia and got her start as an actress in theater. She performed with the vaudeville comedy team Smith and Dale, playing the nurse in their famous sketch, "Doctor Kronkeit." In the 1950s, Burr began appearing in Broadway musicals like "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" and "Funny Girl," where she co-starred with a young Barbra Streisand. She also worked in local theaters and played multiple roles over the years in "Fiddler on the Roof."

After she moved to Hollywood, Burr found work as a character actress in numerous films and television shows, including 10 episodes of "Sanford and Son" where she played multiple characters. Her career spanned seven decades, and she shared the screen with Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown" as a tenacious secretary. She also made guest appearances on popular '90s shows such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld."

Outside of her acting career, Burr volunteered her time in hospitals, first in California and later in Florida. She also had family connections in Hollywood: her brother-in-law was Saul Turteltaub, who was a producer on "Sanford and Son," and she was the aunt of producer-director Jon Turteltaub. Burr died of natural causes in Fort Myers, Florida, on January 17, 2003.

Raymond Allen

Raymond Allen was born the youngest of 12 children in Kansas City, Missouri on March 5, 1929. He played Aunt Esther's husband Woody in "Sanford and Son," but is also remembered for his recurring roles as "Ned the Wino" on "Good Times" and Merle the Earl in "Starsky and Hutch." Allen reprised the role of Woody in "Sanford Arms" and had guest appearances on other series such as "The Love Boat," "The Jeffersons," and "What's Happening!!"

Allen quit acting in the '80s because of his poor health and had been living in a care facility since 2016 because of his frequent bouts of pneumonia. He died at age 91 in 2020 from a respiratory illness unrelated to COVID-19. His daughter, Ta Ronce Allen, announced his death via Facebook: "Just wanted to let The Allen Family and friends know that Dad received his wing two hours ago. His warmth, kind heart, and clever sayings will be missed. His laughter will ring in heaven. Rest In Heavenly Peace Raymond Allen. The last of 12 siblings."

Pat Morita

Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, was born in Northern California on June 28, 1932, and spent much of his childhood in a hospital due to developing spinal tuberculosis at age 2. After recovering, he was transferred from the hospital to an internment camp where he spent the duration of WWII with his family. After WWII ended, his family ran a Chinese restaurant in Sacramento where Morita discovered his interest in stand-up comedy.

Knowing stand-up was a long shot, Morita developed a career working as a data processor with the Department of Motor Vehicles and Aerojet-General Corp. He entered the entertainment industry in earnest at age 30. Although Morita is best known for the role of Mr. Miyagi in "The Karate Kid" franchise, he was also a stand-up comic and a protégée of Redd Foxx. This friendship led to Morita's recurring role in "Sanford and Son" playing Lamont's friend Ah Chew (we're cringing too). Morita also went on the road with Foxx's variety show, playing both Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater.

After "Sanford and Son," Morita got his big break playing Arnold on "Happy Days." He made history, albeit briefly, for being the first Japanese-American lead actor in broadcast television with the spin-off "Mr. T. and Tina." Morita died in Las Vegas on November 24, 2005; he was 73. Morita "was a truly generous actor, a gifted comic, and an even greater friend," Ralph Macchio said in a statement. "My life is all the richer for having known him. I will miss his genuine friendship."

Noam Pitlik

Noam Pitlik began his acting career during college in Philadelphia by starring in the series "Action in the Afternoon." He was later cast in the off-broadway production of "The Three Penny Opera" in New York before becoming a character actor on television in Los Angeles during the '60s. He's best known for his work as a television director; winning an Emmy, Peabody Award, and DGA award for his directorial work, but Pitlik had an active acting career on screen before he became a director.

Pitlik was in numerous films and made the rounds on television in series such as "Hogans Heros," "Bewitched," and "I Dream of Jeannie" before landing a recurring role in "Sanford and Son" as Officer "Swanny" Swanhauser. He directed over 100 episodes of "Barney Miller" and approximately 100 more episodes of various shows during his career. If you watched broadcast television in the '70s or '80s, you probably saw something Pitlik directed. He died in 1999 of lung cancer at 66 years old.

Marlene Clark

Marlene Clark was born in Harlem on December 19, 1937, and became interested in acting during college. She and her husband at the time, Billy Dee Williams, moved to Los Angeles, where she began her career as a model before acting in film and television. "Most of the movies I starred in didn't come out when they were supposed to or never came out at all," Clark once said. "So you miss out on all that publicity that can lead to other jobs."

Among her numerous roles, Clark starred in the cult horror film "Ganja & Hess" about a widow who is turned into a vampire, and she later shared the screen with film legend Sidney Poitier in her feature film debut, "For Love of Ivy." She's arguably best remembered as Lamont's fiancé, Janet Lawson, in six episodes of "Sanford and Son."

Clark quit acting in the '80s, and went on to open her own boutique on Melrose in LA before managing a restaurant in Venice Beach. Clark died on May 18, 2023; she was 85. Her friend Tamara Lynch announced Clark's death with the statement, "She leaves behind friends and family that will forever be grateful for her grace, love, and beautiful heart. Marlene was one of our finest examples of Black beauty."

Demond Wilson, who played Lamont, paid tribute to Clark on Twitter, writing, "RIP beautiful actress Marlene Clark... It was a delight to work with you."

Frank Nelson

Frank Nelson began his acting career on the radio but eventually transitioned into television after moving to Los Angeles. He was an advocate, founding member, and former president of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. Nelson also helped to establish a pension program for freelancers working in broadcasting and was involved with the project as its trustee throughout his lifetime.

Nelson made a career out of his animated, "Yeeessss?" Although he is best known for his extensive voice work and his time on "The Jack Benny Program," Nelson played multiple roles in six episodes of "Sanford and Son." His 60-year career survived the jump from radio to film and television, and he worked with many of the great variety performers of his time, including Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, and Bob Hope.

Nelson died of cancer in 1986; he was 75 years old, leaving behind his wife Veola Vonn, and their children, Doug and Bonnie. Upon hearing of Nelson's death, the AFTRA President Frank Maxwell said, "[Frank Nelson] fought fiercely for the things he believed in [...] His devotion to the welfare of his fellow members will leave its stamp on AFTRA for as long as the union lasts."

Slappy White

Melvin "Slappy" White was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 27, 1921. He took an early interest in entertaining and danced for change outside the Royal Theater during his youth. He left home at 13 and began his career as a dancer. After discovering stand-up comedy, White toured the Chitlin Circuit where he met Redd Fox, and they began performing together.

Like many of his contemporaries, White began his stand-up act in predominantly Black nightclubs but moved into the mainstream with shows in Las Vegas. He regularly performed with Dean Martin, Billy Crystal, and comedy legend Moms Mabley. Throughout his career, White and Foxx collaborated — but unlike his raunchy friend, White was known for keeping his stand-up act clean.

Like many of the actors featured on "Sanford and Son," White landed his recurring role on the series because of his relationship with Foxx, demonstrating how Foxx wanted to share his success with friends. White played Melvin in five episodes of "Sanford and Son," but will be best remembered as a stand-up comedian. He died of a heart attack at home in New Jersey in 1995; he was 73.

Nancy Kulp

Nancy Kulp hailed from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and was a graduate of Florida State University, which was then known as Florida State College for Women. She worked as a journalist in Florida before moving to Los Angeles to work in publicity. According to The Los Angeles Times, Kulp once said, "My first love has always been journalism." After working in publicity, she was convinced to try her hand at acting and had a long career in films and television.

Kulp is best known for playing Jethro's secretary, Jane Hathaway, in "The Beverly Hillbillies," but she also played May Hopkins in five episodes of "Sanford and Son." After her turn on "Beverly Hillbillies" ended, she took to the stage on Broadway and continued with guest appearances on an astounding number of television series through the '70s and the '80s.

Kulp ran for Congress in her home state of Pennsylvania in 1984. "I think a man in office for 12 years should be opposed and the people given a choice," she told The New York Times. "I think he should be asked to answer for his voting record." She lost her bid for Congress when her "Beverly Hillbillies" co-star Buddy Ebsen publicly opposed her liberal stance on issues. Kulp died of cancer in Palm Springs in 1991 at the age of 69.