Things You Didn't Know About '70s Sitcom Stars

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Sitcoms in the 1970s were varied in style and content. On the one hand, there were nostalgia-tinged shows like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley that transported the audience back to the 1950s - although in a much gentler way than M*A*S*H (another show set in that decade) did. On the other hand, there were many sitcoms that weren't afraid to tackle current social issues like racism, equal rights, and poverty. In past decades, sitcoms generally centered around white, middle-class suburban families - but in the '70s, we saw sitcoms where the main character could be a white, working-class bigot (All in the Family), an upwardly mobile Black couple (The Jeffersons), or a single woman in her 30s who might want to get married but also wanted to have a career (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Instead of being set mainly in the home, many of the sitcoms were set in the workplace, whether that was a police department, the garage where cab drivers picked up their taxis, a newsroom, a school, or a mobile Army hospital in South Korea.

Some of the shows starred actors who already had found fame in previous series (Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard), while others made new stars out of children (Gary Coleman), stand-up comedians (Redd Foxx, Bob Newhart), or working actors who had spent years looking for a big break.

Below are behind-the-scenes stories about some of the actors who found fame on 1970s sitcoms.

  • Redd Foxx Was Actually 48 When He Got Cast To Play A 65-Year-Old On 'Sanford and Son'
    Photo: NBC

    Based on Steptoe and Son, a British sitcom that ran from 1962 to 1974, many considered Sanford and Son NBC's answer to CBS's All in the Family, since both shows starred working-class, middle-aged bigots who constantly clashed with younger, more liberal family members. But, as co-creator Bud Yorkin later admitted, the show wasn't necessarily meant to star a Black actor:

    We were either going to get Italian, Jewish, or Black... we tested a lot of people and we couldn't find anybody [to play the role of the father] that I really thought was great, that could do it. We auditioned a lot of good actors, but they just weren't built for that character. And then I caught Cotton Comes to Harlem and right away I said, "There's the guy, Redd Foxx."

    At the time that the pilot was being cast, Foxx was just 48 years old, while the father in the pilot script was 65. But as Yorkin explained, Foxx's lifestyle made the age difference between actor and character no more than a minor issue:

    Believe me, he lived hard. He was gray, and the way he walked on the show was pretty much the way he walked in real life.

    He also had a speaking voice roughened from years of drinking, smoking, and doing drugs. Foxx was doing stand-up comedy and developing a cooking show when he was told about the offer to do the pilot, but Yorkin said that the actor was very excited to have the opportunity to do a sitcom:

    He said, "I'll do anything. I'll take my teeth out if you want me to."

    Sanford and Son ran for six seasons on NBC and spawned two spin-offs. As for how the show got its title? Sanford was Foxx's real last name.

  • Taxi was one of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms of the late '70s/early '80s, winning the Emmy for best comedy series three times in its brief five-season run. The exceptionally strong ensemble cast included Danny DeVito as the nasty taxi dispatcher. Taxi's co-creator James Brooks explained to The Hollywood Reporter how they came up with the character:

    When we were at the cab company [doing research for the show], we saw the dispatcher taking a bribe from a driver for a clean cab. That gave us Louie.

    DeVito added:

    Louie made life miserable for everyone. The manifestation of what was going on inside of him came out in a mean-spirited way to those around him. Deep down he just wanted people to love him.

    The actor loved the role, so he took an unusual approach to his audition:

    The producers are all sitting there. Joel [Thurm] introduces me. I stand in the doorway, with the script in my hand, look at them and say, "One thing I want to know before we start, who wrote this s***?" There was a split second where it could have gone either way. Then they were just paralyzed with laughter. Jim [Brooks] was apoplectic.

    Once he was cast in the part, DeVito focused on building Louie's backstory:

    One of the things I responded to early on was that there was a life for Louie. He lived with his mom. He had a great Mel Torme collection of vinyls; he was a guy who didn’t have a lot of success dating women he didn’t have to pay for.

  • The perpetually stoned street preacher/taxi driver, Reverend Jim, didn't become a series regular until Taxi's second season. Christopher Lloyd described his character as someone who viewed the world with a kind of detached interest, telling The Hollywood Reporter that people could relate to Rev. Jim because he symbolized the drug era.

    When he auditioned for the part, Lloyd neither bathed nor shaved and wore a denim jacket from the '60s that a friend of his had found while cleaning shrubbery. To achieve Rev. Jim's rather distant expression, the actor drew inspiration from a real-life family member:

    My brother had an expression on his face that was kind of Rev. Jim’s look. It just sort of worked. Every once in a while, we’d come back from hiatus, and if I couldn’t seem to get the groove, my brother’s face would come to mind - and suddenly, it was there.

  • On 'All in the Family,' Jean Stapleton Famously Had A Horrible Singing Voice As Edith Bunker, But She Was A Trained Singer Who Appeared In Many Stage Musicals
    Photo: CBS

    All in the Family is one of the most iconic - as well as the one of the most controversial sitcoms in history. It centered around the unapologetically intolerant Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) and his loyal, optimistic, sweet-natured wife. Jean Stapleton won three Emmy Awards for portraying Edith Bunker, and the decision to kill off the character (off-screen) after the actor asked to be written out of the spin-off Archie Bunker's Place devastated a portion of the character's fan base.

    The opening credit sequence of All in the Family, in which Archie and Edith duet on "Those Were the Days," is widely considered one of the most memorable openings in television history. But while Edith has a horrible singing voice, the same could not be said of the actor who portrayed her. Stapleton - who was the daughter of an opera singer - was a trained singer who appeared in multiple stage musicals - including Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, and Funny Girl - both on and off Broadway, as well as in Hollywood adaptations. Among the songs she performed were "You've Gotta Have Heart" (Damn Yankees) and "If a Girl Isn't Pretty" (Funny Girl).

  • Bob Newhart Insisted His Character On 'The Bob Newhart Show' Be Childless, As He Didn't Want To Be In A Typical Sitcom Where 'Daddy's An Idiot'
    Photo: CBS

    Bob Newhart was a successful stand-up comedian primarily doing his act in nightclubs around the country when he was approached about the possibility of doing a television sitcom. The Bob Newhart Show revolved around his character's work as a psychologist - as well as his home life. In an interview for the Television Academy Foundation, Newhart explained the approach the show took with the relationship between the actor and his on-screen wife (Suzanne Pleshette):

    These were two people who were their own people. She was no doormat. She was an intelligent woman; she had her own life. They didn't have children. That was one of the things I kind of insisted upon. I didn't want to do a "Father Knows Best" kind of show where daddy's the idiot and keeps getting himself in scrapes but the kids huddle with mom and bail him out... I'd rather be back in nightclubs on the road if that is what I was going to do. So I suggested that we not have children. Which gave the show a kind of unique quality.

  • When Isabel Sanford First Met Her 'The Jeffersons' Husband, She Thought He Was So Little She Could Have 'Squashed Him Like A Bug'
    Photo: CBS

    A spin-off from All in the FamilyThe Jeffersons was one of the first network sitcoms centered around a prosperous Black couple. Created by Norman Lear, the idea of the Jeffersons "movin' on up" from working-class Queens to Manhattan's east side came after three members of the Black Panthers complained to Lear about how Black characters were portrayed on television: "Every time you see a Black man on the tube, he is dirt poor, wears s*** clothes, can’t afford nothing. That’s bulls***."

    Lear wrote the part of George Jefferson specifically for Sherman Hemsley, but because the actor was doing a Broadway show, Isabel Sanford did not meet him until after she had already appeared as Louise Jefferson on a few episodes of All in the Family. In separate interviews for the Television Academy Foundation, Sanford and Hemsley spoke about how The Jeffersons director John Rich introduced them:

    Hemsley: John Rich grabs Isabel and says, "Isabel! Here's your new husband."

    Sanford: "What?" [Rich] "Your husband." [The actor demonstrated how she skeptically looked at Hemsley after being informed of this.]

    Hemsley [rolling his eyes in an imitation of Sanford's reaction]: She looks me up and down. "Come this way, come on. Come on." Like she knew me all along. There was no like, "Oh, hi. How are you?" There was just "Ugh." The attitude. Well. she expected a big guy. That's what she told me later.

    Sanford: I looked at this little man that I could've squashed like a bug. I said, "Oh, really?" He [Rich] said, "Yes, We've been trying to get a hold of him for weeks." ...I don't see how John could figure out we would make a great-looking couple. 

    The actor admitted that Rich had been right in his belief that she and Hemsley would mesh well together.

    What some may not realize is that Hemsley was not just smaller than Sanford. He was also more than 20 years younger; Sanford was born in 1917, Hemsley in 1938.