On this day in comedy on August 28, 1929 Actress, Roxie Albertha Roker was born in Miami, Florida.
Roker was a conglomerate of influences. She was raised in Brooklyn by a Southern mother and a Bahamian father. So naturally she married and produced an offspring (Lenny Kravitz) with a Jew.
The pioneer who broke cultural ground as half of the first inter-racial couple on network television on the CBS hit sitcom, The Jeffersons, got her start in the Negro Ensemble Company. She won an Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony. But since acting is a wait-for-a-phone-call type of business, Roker supplemented her income as a TV reporter and local television show host.
When The Jeffersons came along it was not only a career changer, but a life shifter as well. In the role of Helen Willis, Roker embodied a proud black woman who never failed to demonstrate that pride even in an inter-racial relationship with one of the whitest white men in media history, Tom Willis (convincingly played by white actor Frank Cover). The Willis’ were neighbors to George and Louise Jefferson, the nouveau riche black couple moving on up as George put others down. Helen Willis was often the brunt of Jefferson’s barbs, but returned as good as she received. The character was no female Clarence Thomas. She kept it black.
After a decade and 253 episodes it was time to move on. For the next two decades Roker was a guest star in demand. She appeared in Punky Brewster, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Murder, She Wrote, 227, The Love Boat, A Different World and Beat the Clock. She also brought her talents to the films, Stone in the River for NBC and Roots for ABC as well as the theatrical feature film, Claudine.
Roker died of breast cancer on December 2, 1995 at the age of 66.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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