Junkman Fred Sanford prefers to think of himself as a dealer in "semiprecious recyclables." Television has its semiprecious recyclables as well, and NCB's "Sanford," premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 4, happens to be among the less semi and more precious. It's the most solid, amusing and appealing throwback in years.
Exhuming the Sanford character and bringing Redd Foxx back in the role was a move made of pure commercial expendiency; "Sanford and Son" was a hit on NBC from 1972 to 1977, although a subsequent version, "Sanford Arms," flopped. The surprise is that the hastily constructed new vehicle is a much better show than the original -- warmer, funnier and less mechanical.
Even Foxx has mellowed agreeably, seeming less reliant on cue cards and repetitious mannerisms and more comfortable in playing the estimable coot who wheels and deals out of a ramshackle L.A. emporium.
The son of "and Son," Demond Wilson, left the show bitterly and so is not back. Instead it is explained, in expository detail of bluntly contrived as to be funny in itself, that Lamont is off working on the Alaska pipeline. Foxx has been surrounded with a host of new foils and nemeses, and writers Sy Rosen and Ted Bergman make the most of most of them -- from the hoity-toity snob who refers to Fred as "Mr. Junkford," to the likably blimpy Dennis Burkley as Sanford's bottomless pit of a business partner.
And new love interest is introduced in the person of attractive Marguerite Ray as Evelyn Lewis, a Beverly Hills widow who is taken with Sanford's codgerly swagger and earthy origins. Eventually they will marry but only, as tonight's special one-hour opener makes clear, after weeks of dalliance and cold feet.
Sanford's arthritis still acts up, he still looks heavenward for apologetic monologues to his dead wife ("Honest, Elizabeth, I didn't even notice her pretty legs and her big brown eyes," he says after falling for the widow), and still has a penchant for hysterical coronaries at those moments when they provide the quickest means of escape.
But the character seems larger now, a figure out of folklore, and never more so than in the hour's finale, an engagement party Sanford attends in a preposterous full-dress suit borrowed from a magician. Here Foxx has a field day sticking pins in the pompous and taking the starch out of stuffed shirts, and the comedy approaches the feisty populism of movies long gone but lovingly remembered.
The writers, producers and director Jim Drake have also sensed the exploitable poignance in the Sanford character, especially during a scene in which he and the widow discuss the disabling state of being alone in the world. At the party, Sanford suddenly becomes a noble, touching figure when he hears society guests ridiculing him behind his back.
"Sanford" makes its irascible hero more dimensional than he has ever been. This may become a classic case of life after death in the great junkyard of television.