This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
It is our good luck that the birthday of Sherman Hemsley (1938-2012) falls on February 1, the first day of Black History Month. A Philly native, Hemsley was first a man of the theatre. He studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts and became a member of Lloyd Richards’ Negro Ensemble Company. His appearance in Ossie Davis’ Purlie on Broadway in two productions (1970-71 and 1972-73, close to 700 performances in total) brought him his first widespread attention. (Cleavon Little played the title character in the first production; Robert Guilliaume in the second. The show was thus also their pathway to bigger things as well, Blazing Saddles in the first case, Benson in the second).
Norman Lear had seen Hemsley on stage, and conceived the part of George Jefferson for him when he launched All in the Family. The Jeffersons, of course, were the Bunkers’ African American next door neighbors, providing much fodder for confrontation and comedy in their exchanges with the racist Archie Bunker. Performing in Purlie prevented Hemsley from getting to do the show for years, but in the meantime, Mike Evans as George’s son Lionel was a frequent recurring character, and Isabel Sanford as his wife Louise was on the show from time to time, as was Mel Stewart as his younger brother Henry. For a while, George seemed a bit of a phantom, a character we’d never see.
In 1975, The Jeffersons launched as its own spin-off series, and became an immediate smash hit, lasting 11 seasons, technically longer than the show it spun off of (although not if you include Archie Bunker’s Place as the successor to All in the Family, which would be reasonable). The show went farther than the earlier Sanford and Son in presenting a “a Black Archie Bunker”. The nouveau riche Jefferson, ensconced in his uptown luxury apartment was constantly deriding “honkies” and poking fun at his ridiculously vanilla neighbors, the British diplomat Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) and his in-laws, an interracial couple played by Franklin Cover as the hilariously clueless Caucasian Tom, and Roxie Roker (cousin of Al Roker and mother of Lenny Kravitz) as his beautiful African-American wife Helen. Berlinda Tolbert played their bi-racial daughter Jenny, first Lionel’s girlfriend, then his wife. The characters of Helen, Tom and Jenny were the first mixed-race family to be central to a major American television show.
George was outspoken to a fault, to the point of treading on the feelings of almost everyone he encountered. The job of smoothing everything over fell to his sensible, even-tempered wife Louise (Sanford) whom George called “Weezie”. Their relationship came complete with a sight gag: Hemsley was short and sort of scrawny with a high pitched voice — a kind of human Chihuahua; whereas Sanford was a sturdy woman, with a deep, commanding voice. George barked but Louise could bite.
Marla Gibbs played their back-talking, disrespectful maid Florence. In 1981, Florence got her own spin-off series, Checking In, but it was cancelled due to poor ratings, and Gibbs returned to The Jeffersons. The aged Zara Cully played George’s mom, the judgmental Mother Jefferson, my favorite character on the show. The show’s irresistible gospel theme song “Movin’ On Up” was sung and co-written by Ja’net Dubois, who also played Willona on Good Times.
Despite numerous Emmy wins and nominations, and its making of history on several fronts (wealthy black characters, an interracial relationship, etc) the popular show was cancelled without warning in 1985. Hemsley went on to play a very different character on the series Amen (1986-1991) and Gibbs also went on to further sitcom success on 227 (1985-1990). In later years, many of the original cast reunited for live stage shows of The Jeffersons.