On this day in comedy on January 18, 1975 The Jeffersons premiered on CBS.
Created by Michael Ross and Bernie West and developed by Norman Lear, The Jeffersons is one of the longest running sitcoms in television history. A spin-off of Lear’s cultural milestone, All In the Family, The Jeffersons centers around George and Louise Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford), an upwardly mobile black couple who worked their way out of the working class section of Queens, New York as neighbors to the Archie Bunkers and into a deluxe high rise apartment in Manhattan. This was accomplished through George’s expanding dry cleaning business and the show’s success was built on great writing, acting and appealing to the times.
When The Jeffersons premiered America was in its post-Civil Rights period and all things seemed possible for those who that struggle meant to benefit. The Jeffersons showed that if you give a black man the same financial opportunities as a white man he could end up just as petty, bigoted and greedy as his Caucasian counterpart. George Jefferson was basically a black Archie Bunker. His wife, Louise was no dingbat, but embodied the solid wife of unwavering morals despite how much money came into her life. They had a maid, Florence (Marla Gibbs), who was also black and talked back. Their neighbor, Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) worked at the UN as a translator and when the bachelor came home he needed George to walk on his back to keep his spine aligned. The Jeffersons also had a son, Lionel, who had a girlfriend, Jenny (Berlinda Tolbert), who had a white father and black mother (Frank Cover and Roxie Roker).
Plus there was a tip happy doorman, Ralph (Ned Wertimer) and George’s mother (Zara Cully) who felt George was too good for everything; especially Louise. Outside of his mother, wife and son, George disapproved of these people and that kept the comedy going for 253 episodes. The Jeffersons was consistently in the Top 30 of the Nielsen ratings. Even when it was cancelled, the news came as a shock to the cast. Many of them heard about getting the axe through a newspaper article or by a friend telling them. This was particularly upsetting because the end was so much different than the beginning when everybody was so accommodating. Lear had written the part of George Jefferson specifically for Sherman Hemsley and eventually waited until Hemsley finished his theatrical obligations before introducing him as the character on All in the Family. That wait took four seasons.
At one point another actor was tried, but the chemistry between Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker) and actor Avon Lewis (the “first” George Jefferson) didn’t work; according to O’Connor and they put the physical George back on the shelf. Undaunted, Lear slid George Jefferson into the conversation by writing in George’s brother, Henry Jefferson (played by Mel Stewart) and when George Jefferson was finally ready for his close-up, the character of Henry disappeared.
The show also had to adjust to a new Lionel when actor Mike Evans left the show after the first season and was replaced by Damon Evans, who was in turn replaced by Mike Evans until Lionel and Jenny were written out of the show (stated reason – marital problems). The show used the frank language of the 1970s including “nigger” and “honky”. George called Tom and Helen Willis “zebras” and everybody called George “short”. This was not a politically correct sitcom (until the latter seasons). It spawned one spin-off; Checking In starring Marla Gibbs, but it checked out after only 4 episodes and Gibbs was right back in her apron on The Jeffersons. The theme song, Movin on Up was composed by Jeff Barry and Ja’net Dubois, whoalso sang the theme with a gospel choir.
During its 11 season run The Jeffersons received 13 Emmy Award nominations for acting with a 1981 win for Isabel Sanford for Best Actress. She was only the second black actress to win this honor (the first was Gail Fisher for Mannix in 1970). The Jeffersons aired its last episode July 2, 1985.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Watch the clip: