In the early ‘70s, America was introduced to George Jefferson, a man who gained his riches by becoming a dry-cleaning legend. A Black New Yorker who climbed on up to the east side of Manhattan with his wife Louise and their teenage son, Lionel. The Jeffersons was a groundbreaking sitcom, and the first one that finally portrayed Black families in a different light.
For 11 seasons, viewers of the show followed the family and their neighbors as they went through hilarious, serious, sad, and joyful experiences.
In honor of this great sitcom, here’s a heartwarming throwback to one of the greatest fictional families to grace our TVs.
A Good Times Member Sang the Theme Song
The upbeat theme song for The Jeffersons, “Movin’ On Up,” was sung by a cast member of Good Times, another sitcom that was around at the same time The Jeffersons aired. Ja’Net DuBois (the actress who played Willona Woods) sang most of the vocals on the recording after producing the catchy tune along with pop icon Jeff Barry.
Barry co-wrote classic hits including “Be My Baby,” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Chapel of Love,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “Sugar, Sugar.” It’s obvious that the guy is extremely talented! You can immediately sense his expertise in the uplifting beats of “Movin’ On Up.”
Members of the Black Panthers Inspired the Show
“Movin’ On Up” was the perfect theme song for the Jeffersons, a Black family living in New York who were doing well for themselves. It was the type of family you didn’t usually see on television at the time. And that was why producer Norman Lear created it. He’d worked on many other shows before that included Black cast members, but none like the Jeffersons.
“Every time you see a Black man on the tube, he is dirt poor, wears shit clothes, can’t afford nothing,” Lear noted in his memoir. The idea for the show popped into his head after three members of the Black Panthers came to his office to discuss how Black people were being portrayed on the network (CBS).
Isabel Sanford Wasn’t Given Much of a Choice
When the studio announced they were creating The Jeffersons as a spin-off to All in the Family, actress Isabel Sanford was nervous about leaving an established TV show for something completely new. It was risky, and she wasn’t sure the move would be worth it. The studio listened to her concerns but pretty much gave her an ultimatum.
Her character, Louise Jefferson, was being written out of All in the Family’s storyline. So, she could either star on The Jeffersons or refuse and be unemployed. That didn’t give Sanford much of a choice. She decided to go with The Jeffersons, and fortunately it worked out great! The show was a major success and kept her in the business for five years after All in the Family went off the air.
The Controversial Smooch
The first interracial smooch to appear on American television is normally credited to Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek in 1968. Still, a decade later, when Tom and Helen Willis kissed on The Jeffersons, the studio executives were as nervous as if it was the first time ever. Actors Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker starred as one of the earliest interracial lovers on The Jeffersons and drew in a hefty number of headlines for it.
After the shooting of their first kiss, several CBS workers campaigned for it to be cut off the show rather than allowing it to grace America’s screens. Fred Silverman, the show’s executive producer, refused to let their complaints get to him and argued that it was the late ‘70s, and that there was no good reason not to air such a kiss.
People Weren’t Happy About It
Despite Fred Silverman’s open-mindedness, many viewers disagreed with him. They found the interracial kiss offensive. They found the very idea of having a white man (Tom Willis) married to a Black woman terribly obscene and they spoke up about it. They sent threat letters to poor Franklin Cover, who really had no idea what he had done wrong.
Luckily, the actors and CBS stood their ground and refused to give in to such bigoted reactions. Tom and Helen Willis remained thick as thieves for the show’s entire run. Despite how disturbed viewers were, the ratings didn’t go down. If anything, they went up.
One Character Disappeared, Then Returned a Few Seasons Later
Mike Evans starred as Lionel Jefferson, George and Louise’s son, for the show’s first season before being swapped with Damon Evans. What happened was that Evans couldn’t find time to work both on the show and work on writing material for another CBS sitcom called Good Times. He decided to go with the writing gig instead of acting on the show. But actor Jimmie Walker, who starred in Good Times claimed there was more to the swap.
Walker said that Mike Evans was actually fired from the show due to a financial dispute he had with developer Norman Lear. So, Damon Evans became Lionel Jefferson for three seasons before parting ways with the series in 1978. In a weird turn of events, Mike Evans made a comeback in Season Six, to play Lionel for two additional years. Confusing? Yup.
And Another Character Flew to Russia
Mike Evans wasn’t the only cast member to disappear, only to return a while later. At the end of the show’s eighth season, Paul Benedict, who played the English translator Harry Bentley, decided he had enough of the show and wanted to try out other roles.
Producers decided not to kill off the character. Instead, they chose to invent a story that led to Bentley having to move to Russia. Good thing they did that because a year later, the actor decided the grass wasn’t really greener on other shows and came back to The Jeffersons for its final two seasons.
And One Cast Member Regretted the Job
When he wasn’t acting on The Jeffersons, Damon Evans was playing music on Broadway as well as performing in different touring productions. He performed as both Jesus and Judas in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, and he deeply enjoyed that part of his life. Dedicating himself to a sitcom felt a bit unnatural, considering how famous he suddenly became.
“Talk about stress and adjustment issues,” Evans told Keith Boykin in 2007 when he confessed to regretting stepping into Mike Evans’ shoes to play Lionel. “I uprooted myself from a role as a classical music student and was thrust in the public’s eye overnight.” Looks like stardom isn’t for everyone.
Mike Evans Left the Show to Create His Own Sitcom
While Mike Evans was away from The Jeffersons (when Damon Evans replaced him as Lionel), he worked as a writer on Good Times, but what most people don’t know is, Evans wasn’t only the new show’s writer – he created it.
Along with Eric Monte and producer Normal Lear, Evans utilized his sitcom experience to create a brand-new TV show. The team ended up doing a fantastic job! Good Times had an impressive run, with six seasons and 133 episodes (only eight episodes less than Maude, the original show from which it had spun off).
Goodbye, Hello Florence
Spin-off shows were everywhere during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s like networks (in this case, CBS) weren’t willing to give up their show and had to keep milking it in all sorts of different variations. All in the Family, for example, had three spin-off shows: Maude, Archie Bunker’s Place, and The Jeffersons. So, it was only a matter of time until The Jeffersons had their own.
The show was called Checking In, and it followed the adventures of Florence Johnston, the Jeffersons’ housekeeper, in her brand-new job. It didn’t last long, airing for just four short episodes before it was finally canceled, and Marla Gibbs, the actress who played Florence, made a quick comeback to the Jeffersons’ household!
Sherman Hemsley Messed Up His Lines on Purpose
The scripts for the show, at least in the first few seasons, made Sherman Hemsley (George Jefferson), use lingo he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. The script had him saying words like “honky” and other racial slurs, often referencing his good pal, Tom Willis. The actor approached the writers with his concerns, but he was ignored. Ultimately, he took matters into his own hands.
Whenever he needed to say a word he thought was inappropriate, Hemsley would purposely mess up the line. He would mumble incoherently so no one could understand what he said. The crew grew tired of Hemsley’s little tricks, so they gave in and allowed him to change the line.
CBS Kept Changing Its Time Slot
Before Netflix and other streaming devices allowed you to enjoy your favorite show whenever, fixed time slots were crucial. After all, people needed to know when the series aired so they could plan to tune in on time. Unfortunately, The Jeffersons never had this type of stability. The network constantly moved the sitcom to fit their ever-changing schedule.
CBS changed the show’s time slot a whopping 15 times in 11 years, making fans work hard for their laughs. Despite the disadvantage, The Jeffersons was a hit, and viewers followed the show through every change until the very end — which is to say, when it was placed right at the time of another hit show, The A-Team (at that point, most faithful fans waved goodbye).
Marla Gibbs Kept Her Day Job
Before being cast as the show’s housekeeper, Florence Johnston, Marla Gibbs had few acting gigs on her resume. She played minor roles in two films, Sweet Jesus and Preacherman (1973) and Black Belt Jones (1974). Incredibly, her part in The Jeffersons was meant to be just another small role with occasional appearances here and there, so she decided to keep working at her other job despite landing the gig.
For two years, the actress continued to take reservations for United Airlines, which undoubtedly came as a huge surprise for the customers who recognized their consultant. But in the end, Gibbs’ character became so popular that she turned into a full-time cast member and had to quit her day job.
Hemsley Was a Mailman
George Jefferson managed a successful chain of dry cleaners in New York after serving in the Navy during the Korean War. The actor behind the character took a different route. Sherman Hemsley was also a military man; he served four years in the Air Force, but later decided to help his country differently by delivering the mail.
Hemsley worked as a mailman in Philadelphia to earn some money while attending evening classes at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. He was then transferred to a post office in New York and began appearing on Broadway. It took the star a long time to give up his steady job for acting. He had to make sure he was successful enough to commit to it 100%.
The Jeffersons Didn’t Get Along
In the show, they were love birds, but once the cameras stopped rolling, so did their affection. Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford weren’t very fond of each other. As it turns out, Hemsley found Sanford to be a bit smug, while Sanford was upset about having a man whom she considered to be unattractive and overbearing as her on-screen husband.
It’s pretty common for TV couples to have their differences in real life. For example, Growing Pain’s Kirk Cameron and Julie McCulloch were like apples and oranges, while X-File’s Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny would also fight on the daily.
But They Did Have Nicknames for Each Other
When you’re working with the same group of people for 11 years, you’re bound to grow on each other, regardless of your differences. And Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford were no different. As the seasons progressed, Sanford began calling her co-star “Neck.”
It was her way of teasing him for being short (Sherman was physically all neck). In return, Sanford was often referred to as “The Queen.” Which is actually a kind reference to her elegant and classy ways, rather than a sarcastic sting implying she was a diva.
A Surprising Slip of the Tongue
Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford may have had their differences, but the tale behind Hemsley’s memorable slip of the tongue implies there could have been kinder feelings flowing, at least in his direction. As a young man, Hemsley reportedly had a mega crush on a girl in Philadelphia whom he had nicknamed “Weezy.”
During one scene, he accidentally referred to his on-screen wife Louise with the same endearing pet name. The show’s crew loved it, and it ended up being a regular term in the script. It turned out great for the show, but the real question was: What was going through Hemsley’s mind when he let the name slip?
The Residents Weren’t Too Happy With the Show
While the internal shots of the family’s place were filmed in a studio, the block they lived in is an actual block located in New York City on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Its unique corner balconies stand at 185 East 85th Street in a building called Park Lane Towers.
You might assume that the actual residents were excited to live at a famous TV address, but apparently, the people were unhappy about having their Manhattan home belonging to the Jeffersons. The towers, only a short walk from Central Park, are still standing tall and proud today and are available if you have $6,000 to pay for rent!
Lenny Kravitz Often Visited the Set
Before wild-haired rocker Lenny Kravitz yelled “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” he was tagging along with his mom to work. Roxie Roker, who gave birth to Lenny with her husband and TV producer, Sy Kravitz, would regularly bring her boy to the set.
Lenny kicked off his music career years after the show ended. And later in life, he followed his mother onto the screen, earning numerous awards for his role as Nurse John in the 2009 drama Precious. He also took on a supporting role as Cinna in The Hunger Games.
There Couldn’t Have Been a Different George
Sherman Hemsley was acting on Broadway when his character, George Jefferson, was first created and ready to be part of the show All in the Family. Still, the actor didn’t let that ruin his chance of snatching the role.
Producer and writer Norman Lear had the actor in mind from the get-go and never really considered anyone else. Lear hired a stand-in while he waited patiently for Hemsley to be ready but kept writing with the star in mind and made sure that the character was given to him as soon as his work schedule allowed it.
Franklin Travelled Far and Wide
How long does it take you to get to work? 30 minutes, an hour tops? Well, Franklin Cover’s journey was a little bit longer, with a flight of six hours! He lived in New York while the show was filmed in Los Angeles. But rather than move, he chose to travel coast-to-coast.
Each week, he would travel 2,800 miles in one direction, and at the end of the week, he would travel 2,800 miles back to spend his off days with his family and loved ones. There’s something a bit funny about flying from New York to L.A. to play in a show set in New York.
He Also Took the Bus
You’d think if an actor was commuting from New York to L.A. to star on a successful TV show, they’d hire a driver to drive them around the bustling city when they landed, or at the very least, pay for a hired car. Yet Franklin Cover didn’t demand any of that.
He would ride the public bus from the airport to the studio and back, unless he got a lift from another cast member. Roxie Roker, his on-screen wife, would usually be the one to drop him home (at his rented apartment in L.A.) after a day of recording. She eventually nicknamed him “the Black woman’s burden.”
A Serious Age Gap
Isabel Sanford was born on August 19, 1917, during the World War I. But Sherman Hemsley was born on February 1, 1938, a little before World War II began. That put a serious gap of over twenty years between the two on-screen lovers.
When Sanford discovered they were casting such a young guy to play her husband, she was far from happy. She highly doubted they would be able to play a convincing married couple. But the show’s fans never questioned it, and when The Jeffersons aired in 1975, the 37-year-old Hemsley and 58-Year-Old Sanford became on-screen husband and wife and played their parts so well that the audience instantly accepted them.
And the Weird Age Gaps Continue…
The fact that Sanford and Hemsley were 20-years apart in age is even more startling when you consider the age difference between Hemsley and Mike Evans who portrayed his son Lionel – only 11 years. George would have needed to be an EXTREMELY young papa if the cast had been playing their own ages.
Mike Evans was born in 1949 and was 26 when he first starred on The Jeffersons (Hemsley was 37). Damon Evans, the actor who replaced Mike for two seasons, was just 21 days younger. In conclusion, there was a bizarre mix of ages within the Jefferson family, but that didn’t seem to worry viewers.
A Surprisingly Successful Spin-Off
The Jeffersons were created as a spin-off of All in the Family, but it went on to reign for even longer than the original series. All in the Family had nine seasons with 205 episodes, and when the show ended in 1979, The Jeffersons went on for another six years, reaching 253 episodes over 11 seasons!
It was the only All in the Family spin-off to reach those insane numbers. But the show isn’t the only one to reach such heights. Diagnosis: Murder outlasted Jake and the Fatman (the original show) by 72 episodes, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has already aired 483 episodes, compared to the original series which reached 456.
They Deserve the Longevity Crown
The Jeffersons aired for 11 seasons, making it one of the longest-running sitcoms in American TV history. While animated series like The Simpsons and Family Guy have been crowned the longest in Primetime comedy, The Jeffersons are still in the lead when it comes to sitcoms.
The Big Bang Theory (279 episodes), Cheers (275), and Frasier (264) are the leading sitcoms in color TV, but all of them have an almost exclusively white list of actors. The Jeffersons has become the longest-running sitcom with a Black cast, and to this day, it’s a record that has only been beaten by one show – Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, which aired for 254 episodes from 2006-2012, with only one episode more than The Jeffersons.
The Mother Passed Away
Actress Zara Cully worked in theatre most of her life until she appeared on TV for the first time as Olivia “Mother” Jefferson in 1966. The sitcom’s first episode aired a week before her 83rd birthday. The last episode she appeared on, George and Louise in a Bind, was broadcasted on February 25, 1978, and she died three days later.
While she didn’t play a central character, it still became her best-known role, and fans will forever remember the actress as George’s mother. The show’s producers chose not to replace her out of respect, and in Season Five, her death was written into the script and mentioned by the cast.
The Alternating Photo
Producers of long-running TV shows love adding small details for die-hard fans to spot, or sometimes they do it just for fun, and it happened quite a lot on The Jeffersons. One subtle feature could be spotted every single week on the desk near the family’s telephone.
They put a picture frame with an ordinary family photograph, a standard object to have, right? Except that the picture kept changing. At times, it would be a sweet family portrait, and at times it would be either George or Louise. Some episodes would feature Mother or Lionel.
Lionel Was the First One to Appear on Our Screens
It was neither the mom nor the dad of the Jefferson family who first graced the screen, but their beloved son, Lionel. Four years before the show’s first episode aired, we got to see him in an episode of All in the Family titled “Lionel Moves Into the Neighborhood” where we are introduced into the family.
The episode centered around Archie Bunker and how angry he was about having a Black family move into his neighborhood. Lionel also starred in the two pilot episodes of All in the Family from 1968, where he was played by D’Urville Martin.
An Emmy Frenzy
Over show’s 11 seasons, The Jeffersons snatched a total of 14 Emmy nominations and eight Golden Globe awards, with Sanford earning seven and five of those, respectively. Out of all the nominations, however, only two awards were ever rewarded to the cast and crew – one for Outstanding Video Tape Editing and another for Best Lead Actress (Isabel Sandford).
Sanford became the first-ever Black woman to take the Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and the second Black woman to take any Primetime Emmy. Cicely Tyson was the first one who picked up the award in 1974 for her part as Miss Jane Pittman in The Autobiography.
A George Clooney Spin-Off (Sort Of)
During the Jeffersons’ final season, CBS released a new sitcom called E/R. It was about the happenings in an emergency room at a Chicago Hospital, and while it wasn’t a full-on spin-off, it did feature someone related to the Jeffersons. Lynne Moody starred as Nurse Julie Williams, who was also George and Louise’s niece.
George Clooney, who was 23 years old at the time, starred in the show as the hospital’s technician. A decade later, he would go from technician to Dr. Doug Ross in NBC’s show ER. Another actress who went from E/R to ER was Mary McDonnell. She played Dr. Eve Sheridan in the former and Eleanor Carter in the latter.
Breaking Down Social Barriers
The Jeffersons dealt with a string of social issues and did their best to tackle and break down all sorts of social barriers. The issues of racism and interracial relationships were a huge part of the show. In addition, The Jeffersons discussed things like suicide, gun control, and alcoholism.
The show’s creator, Norman Lear, also took the opportunity to introduce Ed, the first transgender to ever appear in a sitcom. Ed appears in episode 64 called Once a Friend. Years later, Lear felt like a one-time appearance wasn’t enough, and for his new sitcom, All That Glitters, he introduced a recurring transgender character named Linda Murkland.
The Jeffersons Featured a Sitcom Icon
In Season Four, the Jeffersons gave their viewers a sneak peek of a guy who would soon be crowned sitcom royalty. At only ten years old, Gary Coleman appeared on the show as Raymond, George’s nephew. And he made a huge impression the second he stepped foot on the set.
A few weeks later, Gary Coleman appeared again, on the show Good Times, before making a move to join ABC and the cast of their new series, Diff’rent Strokes. From that point on, he became the iconic Arnold Jackson and would go on to become a beloved character people couldn’t get enough of.
They Also Hosted Some Incredible Musicians
The Jeffersons featured some huge names, both from the acting and the musical world. Motown’s Gladys Knight appeared in the 200th episode, “The Good Life,” and 18 episodes later, Rat Pack legend Sammy Davis Jr. became the Jeffersons’ neighbor!
In the tenth season, George tries to manage a band, who just happens to be star disco’s Sister Sledge. Engelbert Humperdinck also joined the musical party on The Jeffersons in Season 11 in an episode where the gang travels to Atlantic City.
Athletes Joined the Fun Too!
Some of the nation’s sporting heroes also arrived at the studio to star on the show. In the episode, You’ll Never Get Rich, the Jeffersons go to Atlantic City where Louise becomes obsessed with meeting celebs, only to miss most of the ones she encounters. Boxers Michael Spinks and Joe Frazier were among the famous figures Louise overlooked.
Joe Frazier, known for his powerful fights against Muhammad Ali, was at the end of his career at the time of the show, but Michael Spinks was just at his peak. When the show aired, Spinks held several titles including the WBA, WBC, IBF, and The Ring light heavyweight titles.
Actors, Musicians, Athletes and Even the President
The Atlantic City episode also introduced someone who would eventually become America’s 45th president – Donald Trump. Before 1985, he was known mainly as a businessman but, after his appearance on the show, he began making other TV and film appearances, ultimately making a name for himself in the entertainment industry.
Trump made guest appearances in a string of shows throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the most memorable one being The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. He then landed a job as the host of NBC’s The Apprentice, and finally, in 2016, he was elected President.
The Cast Didn’t Know About the Cancellation
Over 11 seasons, the bonds between the cast members became extremely tight. And not only the cast grew close, but also the crew members working on set as well as the studio. However, when The Jeffersons was taken off the air, no one thought of letting its lead actors know.
Sherman Hemsley said he learned he was unemployed by reading about it in a magazine. Isabel Sanford received the news from a cousin who knew before her! A shocking lack of respect, that’s for sure! Definitely not the way you would expect to find out about something as big as that.
They Had to Make Their Own Finale
Because the show’s cancellation wasn’t communicated to the cast, they had no idea how to end it. There wasn’t any proper finale. The last episode was a normal episode which showed George trying to win the Dry Cleaner of the Year award.
The actors felt incredibly cheated and refused to end the show on that note. So, several years later, in 1991, they took action! They rejoined forces to create a play based on three episodes from the original show. They called the play The Best of The Jeffersons, which they performed in several cities.
The Jeffersons Made Several Comebacks
While the show wrapped up on July 2, 1985, it wasn’t the last time the Jeffersons appeared on TV. They made a guest appearance on an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show that introduced the world to Will Smith and ran from 1990 to 1996.
In the last episode, Philip Drummond and Arnold Jackson from Diff’rent Strokes made an appearance, as well as George and Louise Jefferson!
George Jefferson made another appearance in the early 2000s, along with his housekeeper, Florence. The two starred on House of Payne, the show that surpassed The Jeffersons by one episode.
Their Legacy Lives On
No matter how many years have passed, the world clearly isn’t ready to let the Jeffersons go. In 2019, Jimmy Kimmel teamed up with Norman Lear, to create two live studio specials. They decided to recreate episodes of All in the Family, Good Times, and The Jeffersons.
They hired incredible actors to play the beloved characters, with Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes as George and Louise. The only OG to perform was Marla Gibbs, who made a great comeback at the age of 87 as Florence Johnston. Variety noted that the nostalgic broadcast “managed to feel both like an artifact of a nostalgic past and the urgent present.”