While starring in the sitcom “Sanford and Son,” Redd Foxx once asked NBC to give him a briefcase full of cash in lieu of a paycheck. “I think he thought that if he got the money in cash, the IRS wouldn’t know about it,” says Kathleen Fearn-Banks, who spent more than 20 years as a publicist for the network. “And you know, he ended up in much debt to the IRS.” When Fearn-Banks left California in 1990 to become a professor in the UW Department of Communication, she thought she was leaving the flashy (and sometimes fatuous) world of TV stars behind for good. But she decided to revisit it recently, as author of the first-ever Historical Dictionary of African-American Television (Scarecrow Press).
Because you had been given a predetermined length, you had to make some tough exclusions from your dictionary—people who’d only made single appearances, writers…
You could do a whole book, actually, on black writers, producers and directors. I had to make a decision, and it was not just my decision. It was also the editor’s decision, early on, that we would not include the behind-the-scenes people.
I know a dictionary doesn’t really have heroes the way a novel does. But in the course of your research, was there anyone who really emerged as a heroic figure?
Of course there were many pioneers, and I don’t want to take anything away from them. But what did come to my attention, and I’d never thought about it so seriously before, was the importance of the producers who were not African American but who fought to get the real stories told on television. Hal Kanter, who created the sitcom “Julia” with Diahann Carroll, admitted that he didn’t even know any African Americans. But he wanted to do it right, having seen what was going on in the world, with civil rights and demonstrations. He met with Diahann Carroll and worked with her to get a sitcom on the air with an African American lady star who was educated, dignified, well dressed, well spoken—something that had never happened before on television.
You also have a scholarly interest in the press secretaries of U.S. presidents. And I know that crisis communications is your field. So this dictionary was a little bit of a departure for you.
It was a great departure. In fact, since I’ve finished the dictionary I’ve finished another edition, the third, of my book Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach, which should be out any time now. And I’m hoping to get a sabbatical and start on the presidential press secretaries. That’s going to be several articles and at some point become a book. I’ve never really worked at the University in the area of ethnicity, or in television, actually, even though my background is in television. And of course I was not working only on African-American shows the 21 years I was at NBC. I worked on all types of shows. It’s just that when I found out that Scarecrow Press was going to do this book, I couldn’t see anybody else doing it, because I lived it. I just knew I had to do it.
When you left television and the media and came to the University, did you have a desire to put it all behind you, to make a clean break?
Absolutely. I was escaping celebrities. And I knew that if I stayed in California I would end up, somehow, doing something with celebrities. So it was a clean break. Public relations was my obvious field to teach, and crisis communications was just kind of making its way as a research subject. I noticed that students were really interested in that area of the classes I taught, and there had been very little written about it.
You’re also planning on writing the biography of your good friend Flip Wilson. What are some of the salient facts of his life–other than being the first African-American to star in a long-running variety show?
Flip became a star through a plan. He had a little notebook, and he wrote down jokes that he’d heard other comedians do, and he would analyze them. Why did they work? He was not schooled. He dropped out of the eighth grade. So he had no background at all in education. But he kept this notebook for years, plotting his path to the top. And he made it, actually, through a plan, which is one reason he didn’t do much after his television show. Because he had done everything he had planned, achieved everything he wanted to achieve, and there wasn’t another dream, you know?
I’m sure you met a lot of memorable people. Is there anyone who was particularly memorable? I’ve always wondered what Redd Foxx was like in person.
He was certainly memorable. There were times when he had a lot of people pulling their hair out. And when I see some of those people, we always talk about, “Those were the good old days.” We didn’t know those were good old days at the time.