LaWanda Page died on September 14, 2002 at the age of 81, she was an American actress and comedian best known for her role as Aunt Esther in the 1970s TV sitcom Sanford and Son.
Born Alberta Peal on October 19, 1920, in Cleveland, Ohio, she began her career in show business working small nightclubs, billed as “The Bronze Goddess of Fire,” an act which included her eating fire and lighting cigarettes with her fingertips.
She performed the cigarette feat on an episode of Sanford and Son titled “The Greatest Show in Watts” in Season 5 of the series, in which Fred held a circus in his front yard.
On Sanford and Son, the character Aunt Esther was the sister of Fred Sanford’s late wife Elizabeth. Before getting the role, Page had already been performing her comedy routine in nightclubs in St. Louis and then Los Angeles for several years.
She was beginning to get out of show business because she was moving back to St. Louis to take care of her ailing mother. Foxx, a stand-up comedian himself for several years, was offered a television sitcom back in L.A.
When the show was being cast, he told one of the show’s producers about Page. The producer had heard of her before as he himself had previously caught her act. Foxx telephoned Page in St. Louis and asked her to read for the role of Aunt Esther.
Page came back and auditioned for the role and was offered the role. However, before any taping had begun, producers noticed during rehearsals that Page was unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of producing a television sitcom; she had been more accustomed to performing in nightclubs.
One of Sanford and Son’s producers stated to Foxx that he would need to fire Page and hold auditions again for the Aunt Esther role so that taping could begin. Foxx insisted Page play the part and he threatened to walk away from the show if she were let go.
Her character, Aunt Esther, took her share of zingers from Foxx and other cast members — Sanford’s friend Grady once quipped, “Nice having her around, she makes the junk look so pretty.” But Aunt Esther usually responded with equally stinging rejoinders.
“Watch it, sucker!” her favourite catch phrase, was followed by a spate of sharp-tongued invective. The exchanges between her and Sanford were among the weekly highlights.
“Sanford and Son,” ran from 1972 to 1977 on NBC and remained one of television’s top rated shows, inspiring several spinoffs in which she also appeared.