Created by the groundbreaking producer Norman Lear, The Jeffersons was a spin-off series from All In The Family and featured George and Louise Jefferson, a well-to-do African-American couple and their adventures in New York City. Like its parent show, The Jeffersons covered pressing social issues, but it was the more traditional of the two series as it focused more on exploring the relationships between its characters. The incredibly popular and beloved comedy TV series lasted a full decade. If you were just introduced to The Jeffersons after the show’s live reboot in 2019, read on to learn the backstory on the series and its stars.
It Was The Longest-Running Comedy With a Predominantly Black Cast of All Time
The Jeffersons began in 1975 and came to a close a decade later, in 1985. The show ran through 11 amazing seasons and featured more than 250 episodes. Amazingly, the spin-off actually outlasted its parent series which was canceled after nine seasons.
It also spent more time on the air than The Cosby Show which is another of America’s best-known comedies featuring a predominantly black cast. Additionally, The Jeffersons was one of the first television series to feature a married interracial couple.
It Was Cancelled Abruptly And Had No Finale
After the show saw a substantial dip in ratings, CBS pulled the plug on The Jeffersons in 1985. The network didn’t give the cast and writing team any notice – so it came to an abrupt end with no proper finale. Several cast members say they learned of the cancellation through the media and other channels rather than being informed of it personally.
They’ve all indicated they thought that CBS’ actions were downright disrespectful, with Sherman Hemsley asserting that he heard the news by reading a newspaper story about it. CBS also canceled The Dukes of Hazzard and Alice that year.
The Englishman Was American
Paul Benedict acted the part of the Jefferson family’s neighbor Harry Bentley. He was an eccentric Englishman on the show but in real life that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Paul was an American — born and raised in New Mexico. He’d served in the United States Marine Corps and worked on Broadway and the hit children’s TV show Sesame Street before joining the cast of The Jeffersons.
Isabel Sanford Almost Refused To Appear On The Jeffersons
Isabel Sanford wasn’t keen on the idea of jumping ship for a spin-off series as she felt that her role in All in the Family was stable and well-received. She initially turned down the opportunity but eventually relented and joined the cast of The Jeffersons.
Good thing everything worked out with the spin-off. Sanford won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her work on the series.
The Legendary Norman Lear
Norman Lear created The Jeffersons and All in The Family, as well as its other spin-off comedy success, Good Times. He’s also responsible for Sanford and Son and Maude. He is considered to be “The Godfather of Classic Black Sitcoms.”
Lear has consistently been a champion for civil rights in America and beyond. He’s a staunch supporter of First Amendment rights and established the advocacy organization People for the American Way.
The Jeffersons In 2019
Fans of classic television tuned in on May 22, 2019, to watch Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a special that aired on ABC. Co-hosted by Lear and Jimmy Kimmel, the show featured an all-star ensemble including Jamie Foxx, Wanda Sykes, Kerry Washington, Woody Harrelson, Ellie Kemper, and more.
In Lear’s introduction, he said, “The language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today and we are still grappling with many of these same issues. We hope tonight will make you laugh, provoke discussion and encourage action.”
Marla Gibbs Appeared In The 2019 Reboot
Marla Gibbs is the actress who played Florence Johnston, the Jeffersons’ maid always ready with a witty comeback. She added a lot to the sitcom’s funniest scenes and was a series regular throughout the show’s run. She continued to work in TV after The Jeffersons ended and has appeared on The Hughleys and The First Family. She’s also done a number of movies.
Fans of The Jeffersons were thrilled to see Gibbs make an appearance on 2019’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons.
Lionel Jefferson Was Played By Three Actors
The role of Lionel Jefferson, son of George and Louise, was played by three different actors. In two unaired pilots, actor D’Urville Martin played the role. For most of The Jeffersons’ time on the air, Lionel was portrayed by Mike Evans, although he left the show to focus on his writing for three years. During Mike Evans’ hiatus from the show, Damon Evans (no relation) stepped in as Lionel.
Fun fact: the character Lionel Jefferson appeared on All in the Family before Archie Bunker made his first appearance!
That Catchy Theme Song Was Sung By An Actress From Good Times
The theme song for The Jeffersons was composed by Jeff Barry and Ja’Net DuBois. Ja’Net also starred in another popular African-American sitcom, Good Times. The theme song for The Jeffersons was her debut as a professional singer.
In 1987, DuBois appeared in her former Good Times co-star Janet Jackson’s music video for “Control.” DuBois played Jackson’s mother in the video. She also acted in a variety of films and television shows after Good Times.
Berlinda Tolbert, AKA Jenny Willis Jefferson
Jenny Willis Jefferson was played by the lovely Berlinda Tolbert. Jenny was the child of Helen and Tom Willis, and she also married Lionel Jefferson. Tolbert started acting in the 1970s and got her very first film part from Martin Scorsese while she was still in acting school.
Once The Jeffersons had ended, she continued to act in a variety of roles. She’s been on ER and Six Feet Under, and starred in some very successful films such as Goodfellas and Patriot Games.
Commercial Success After The Show
Marla Gibbs’ role as the Jeffersons’ maid was so popular that it won her an Emmy award. She had a special chemistry that got audiences going, and after the show, she continued the role in commercial advertisements for years.
Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford’s roles also stood the test of time. They appeared together as George and Louise in commercials for companies such as Denny’s, The Gap, and Old Navy.
Paul Benedict Was Once Saved By An Audience Member During A Stage Performance
Paul Benedict was a stage actor in the 1960s. During a performance at the Theater Company of Boston, an audience member noticed something not right with the actor. He came backstage and explained that he was an endocrinologist and had noticed that Benedict’s facial structure suggested symptoms of acromegaly, a pituitary disorder that affects the face and the extremities.
This intervention enabled Benedict to get treatment and ensure his career as an actor. He said, “[the doctor] sent me to an endocrine specialist and I underwent a twenty-minute operation. And that was that. Actually, it would’ve killed me if it hadn’t been caught at that time.”
Franklin Cover’s Career Spanned Six Decades
After getting his acting started on stage, Franklin Cover made the move to television on a show called Naked City. On The Jeffersons, Cover played Tom Wills, who was married to Helen, portrayed by Roxie Roker. They were one of the very first interracial couples on a TV show.
Cover also acted in All in the Family, The Jackie Gleason Show, Who’s the Boss?, Living Single, Will & Grace, E.R., and Mad About You. He died of pneumonia in 2006, at the age of 77.
The Jeffersons Returned, Briefly, In The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
If The Jeffersons dominated the airwaves of the 1970s and 1980s, it was The Fresh Prince of Bel Air which took their throne in the 1990s. Will Smith’s first well-known role would eventually propel him to international fame but the show didn’t forget its roots.
George and Louise appeared in two episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, reprising their beloved roles again. In the first, they run into Will and his girlfriend at a couples counseling group. And in the series finale, George and Louise appear as prospective buyers of the Banks’ former house.
Paul Benedict Passed Away In 2008
When Paul Benedict left The Jeffersons, he starred in many other TV shows and movies appearing in The Addams Family, Seinfeld, A Different World, Devil’s Advocate, and more. In the 1990s, he directed a Broadway production of Frank D. Gilroy’s play Any Given Day.
In 2008, Paul Benedict took his final curtain call and passed away from a brain hemorrhage. One colleague remembered him this way: “He was our great and talented oddball who brought joy and artistic strength to whatever he tried. Paul Benedict will be fondly remembered and greatly missed.”
Ned Wertimer Was A World Traveler
Ned Wertimer played the Jeffersons’ doorman, Ralph Hart, and was famous for begging for a tip only to be abused and have the door slammed in his face. Viewers loved the character. Following The Jeffersons, Wertimer took up occasional roles on TV and appeared in one of The Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
In his personal life, Wertimer loved to travel the world and roamed as far as Australia, Egypt, and Thailand. He died in 2013 from complications following a fall, at the age of 89.
Zara Cully Brought The Laughs As “Mother Jefferson”
Zara Cully had had a long and distinguished acting career before joining The Jeffersons. She was once called “one of the world’s greatest elocutionists.” As George’s mother, who tormented and insulted Louise endlessly, she delighted audiences.
Sadly, Mother Jefferson was the final role Cully played on television. She died of lung cancer in 1978, when she was 86 years old. It’s worth noting that Zara was a teetotaler who had never touched a cigarette.
Roxie Roker Has Famous Relatives
Roxie Roker played Helen Willis, Tom’s wife, on The Jeffersons. She began her career on the stage and an Obie Award and a Tony nomination for her role in a play called The River Niger. She also worked as a television reporter in New York and hosted a public affairs program.
Roker married a TV producer named Sy Kravitz in 1962, and they had a son named Lenny who’s now a famous singer-songwriter. She was also the cousin of weatherman Al Roker. Sadly, she died of breast cancer in 1995, at the age of 66.
“Weezy” is how Isabel Sanford is frequently remembered from her time on The Jeffersons as Louise Jefferson. Her polished performances were a perfect foil for her husband’s whackier and more aggressive behavior.
After the show ended, Sanford continued acting career. She got her own sitcom, Isabel’s Honeymoon Hotel, and made appearances in other shows like In The House and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Sanford passed away due to heart problems in 2004. She was 86.
What Ever Happened To Sherman Hemsley After The Jeffersons?
Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson was a one-of-a-kind character. It’s the kind of role that could never be reprise under different circumstances. Referring to white folks as “honkies” and physically removing people from his apartment is what made him so popular to fans.
For his work on The Jeffersons, Hemsley was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award, and received an NAACP Image Award. He continued with a successful acting career following his departure from the show, appearing Amen and Dinosaurs. Sadly, Sherman Hemsley passed away from lung cancer in 2012.
The Jeffersons Featured In A Will Smith Hit Record
It wasn’t just on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air that The Jeffersons proved to have been a huge influence on Will Smith. Will Smith’s hit 1990s single “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” includes a sneak tribute to the two lead characters of the TV show in its lyric sheet. “Now they give it to me nice and easy, since I moved up like George and Weezy.”
In 2018, Smith appeared on The Tonight Show, where he and host Jimmy Fallon performed a medley of classic television theme songs, which (of course) included The Jeffersons’ catchy tune.