As a child growing up in the projects, I spend most of my time listening to the radio and watching television, and one of the shows I enjoyed watching the most was The Jeffersons. I first began to watch the show on channel 11, and then when on Sundays when I was allowed to stay up later (halleluh). I quickly bonded with the characters and I would find myself memorizing the lines to the point where an episode would come on I would recite them along with the characters which drove my mother crazy. “That’s a repeat episode and you need to get in those books instead of reaping those episodes. The cast of The Jeffersons know their math and they finished school and some of them got their degrees” she would say in a way to get me to do well in school. My grade school teacher at the time even bashed the show and it’s cast. She was upset at one of my classmates for not watching the news and she was going off on her. “There’s other things you can be watching besides The Jeffersons. I don’t know why people be watching the show. It’s not a good show and the cast has to have their lines read to them. When another student asked about Good Times, she praised the show. “Good Times is the show!! Good Times is a better show!! The cast are more talented and getting more money. Good Time is making all the money!!!! Crazy thing is that Good Times had been off the air at that time. SMH. I was shocked when The Jeffersons was canceled and I was even more shocked and pissed to learn that the cast had advocated for CBS to give them a closing episode, which the network refused to do (shame on them) forcing them to capitalize of their legacy by performing stage versions which gained great reviews and money before Roxie Roker, was forced to leave due to breast cancer. After her death, many of the cast members began to pass away leaving Marla Gibbs, Belinda Tolbert, Andrew Harold Rubin, Alan Hammer, Damon Evans, Ernest Harden, Jr and Ebonie Smith as the last surviving members of the cast.
When I first learned that Unsung was doing a documentary on The Jeffersons, I thought it was a joke, but after seeing the ad on their website, I was shocked: The Jeffersons aren’t unsung. This show is the longest running sitcom to have 11 seasons. Before you try to come after me, I’m not hating on the show; I’m glad that a documentary was done on the show, but I still feel it’s not unsung.
During the mid 1960’s to early-mid 1970’s, the Civils Right era was in full force and many people had spent time watching the news about the protests and riots. By the time the era had folded, many television viewers was looking for an escapism and looking for shows about Blacks. “TV had been behind the times when it came to Black families” Television host Tanya Hart said. The man who would help with that was Norman Lear, a television producer who created several shows surrounding Black families staring with “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times” which quickly became hits with the fans and some critics, but however they were many critics who felt that the shows were showing sterotypes and not showing other images and sides of Black families. Lear decided to create a spin off of the hit show “All In The Family” which featured the late Carroll O’ Connor as Archie Bunker, an out-spoken bigot, who wasn’t fond of the changing times. “Archie Bunker’s world was changer quicker than he wanted to” Hart said of his character. Lear decided to introduce a Black family The Jeffersons who moved from Harlem to Queens after George’s dry cleaning business became a success. Legendary actress Isabel Sandford was casted as Lousie “Weezy” Jefferson and Mike Evans was casted at their son Lionel. The producers went on a hunt to find a actor to play George: they found the perfect guy. Philadelphia born actor/singer Sherman Hemsley an military veteran who worked at the post office during the day while starring in the hit play “Purlie” at night. Hemsley loved the character, but there was a problem; he was still starring on “Purlie” and waited for the play to wrap before he officially signed on as George. Many of the producers praised his work by saying ‘Sherman Hemsley was one of the rarest in talent and he was the Black version of Archie Bunker.’ What made the show and characters a hit was the edge and how they spoke about issues in a comedic way. “Positive and comedy don’t go together” historian Darryl Littleton said about the plot and show’s formula. Lear decided to launch a spin-off, but Sanford, who was friendly with the cast of All In The Family didn’t want to leave, but when she was told that they was going to recast her and write out her character, she had a change of heart. The story had The Jeffersons moving on up to the lower East Side of Manhattan into a deluxe apartment in the sky. It was a great change for television and it became a favorite among many Blacks who was happy to see other Blacks on television living the good life. “We had Black policemen. Black doctors” Actress/Singer Marla Gibbs who was casted as The Jefferson’s maid Florence Johnston said about the types of Blacks she saw in her neighborhood. Also making the show groundbreaking was the actors Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover portraying Helen and Tom Willis, television’s 1st interracial couples, which George’s character didn’t approve of. He would refer to them as Zebra, and while Tom would remain silent most of the time, Helen would talk back to him, mainly calling him shorty and talking about him being inconsiderate. She had let him know in her own way I may be married to a White man, but I’m still a Black lady who would put you in check. Many of the viewers wasn’t fond of the Willis as well. The show’s publicist and producer spoke about how many of the viewers took that once she made it she got with a White man attitude and how the kissing scene made many Black males uncomfortable. “It might have been harder for the brothers to watch” a producer of the show said. Another producer added that many did love The Willis’ and said the show that having an interracial couple could workout Another actress who gave the show fire was Zara Cully who’s portrayal of Mother Jefferson made the character loved and hated. “Mother Jefferson. She represented all the mother-in-laws who don’t like their daughter-in-laws” co-star Gibbs said about Cully’s character. While her character was shady towards Louise, off screen they got along and had a wonderful friendship. In fact all of the cast and crew were tight and got along. Actor Ernest Harden, Jr who played Marcus Garvey Henderson spoke about how the crew not only got along with each other, but they also got along with the cast of “What’s Happening” who’s series was also filmed in the same studio. “We would hang out. Go to lunch he said. The Jefferson’s best loved character was Gibbs’ portrayal of Florence Johnston, The Jefferson’s maid. Sassy and known for not biting her tongue, she always stood up to George’s character and whenever he talked about her cooking and lack of work, Florence would speak about his height, his bald spot and his lack of pay. She was also known for having both George and Louise to answer the door. Actor/Writer Ernest Lee Thomas spoke about the doorbell scenes being his favorites. Gibbs spoke about getting the role. “I hadn’t done comedy. I had done plays. I was an actress looking for a job.” She was also working for Amercian Airlines, which shocked the producers who not only offered her a large salary, but they offered the amount she would make yearly at the airline. Marla accepted that payment and didn’t look back. “I took the risk and resigned from American Airlines.” The show did well, but it began to go through changes. Mike Evans had left the show to write for “Good Times” and was replaced by actor/singer Damon Evans, who I feel added more swagger to Lionel’s character and Zara Cully being diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite her illness, she was determined to work and the producers would allow her to work and have time off to rest. “It was very very sad” Marla said of Zara’s illness. “We loved Mother Jefferson.” Actress Belinda Tolbert who played Jenny Willis-Jefferson spoke on how the cast and crew was prepared for their co-star’s future passing and transition. “We had preparations” Tolbert said. The producers decided to have Florence’s character become a regular and Marla spoke about one of her favorite episodes: “Florence In Love” the episode where she invited a man who she was dating to spend the night at the Jefferson’s home due to the rainy weather and him living in the Bronx without asking their permission. She and George had words and not only did she quit, she later learned the guy she was sating was married with kids. She goes to the Willis and when Tom convinces George to rehire her, he does, but one condition: she had to act like a real maid. Florence honored his request. She called him Massa Jefferson and even took it a step further by wearing a many uniform and wanted to shine his shoes and when he got mad she cried I’m sorry Massa. Marla wasn’t the only who with comedy skills. Many of the cast and producers revealed that Isabel was also a natural comic as well. “Isabeal was a natural comedy. She could have been Florence” Gibbs said of her co-star’s gifts. “Isabel was nothing like Louise” Belinda added. “She asked to be The Queen.” Television host Tanya Hart spoke on Louise’s character and how she loved George but would stand up to him and (with the exception of Florence and Helen) wouldn’t allow anybody to insult him. “Louise would play the good cop and bad cop” Hart said. Producers also spoke about Hemsley’s famous walk and strut. In a interview clip that was placed in the documentary, Sherman spoke about how he added it during the opening scene and did it for comedy. Many from his Philadelphia hometown would do the strut with pride. Producers and cast also spoke about how he was a nice, but private and shy person off camera. “In real life Sherman was real shy. He more wanted to hear what you had to say” publicist Kathleen Forris said. Around the mid late 1970’s the Disco era began to dominate pop culture and many television viewers wanted an escape. “Black was out of vogue. It would be another 10 years before Black to become vogue again” historian Littleton said. Another issue the cast was having was the network constantly switching the timeslots for the show. Frustrated, Marla used her sassiness to get the producers and executives to stop playing switcheroo with the show. “If you would stop moving us and let people find us, then we would be fine.” Lear came to his senses and managed to have the show air after “60 Minutes” and the show gain greater success and views. Peaking at # 1 and staying in the top 5 for several seasons. Also adding to the success was the hiring of young Black Producers and writers who came up with creative ways to have the show keep up with the times while interjecting social issues in the storylines. One of them was when George joins Tom and their neighbor Mr. Bentley (played by Paul Benedict) for a neighbor which they believe is a regular tenant meeting, but they especially George is shocked to learn that it’s actually a meeting with the Klu Klux Klan. As usual George had words for the Klan leader who suffered a major heart attack and George saved his life. Instead of the bigot being grateful, he told his son he should have let him died. “Sherman gave him mouth to mouth resusitaction. The head said he should have let him died, (but) the son changed.” The writers also showed George’s character being more mellow and tolerant towards White people. On May 7, 1985, CBS aired it’s last episode and while many were looking forward to the next episode, the fans and the cast was shocked to learn that the network decided to cancel the series through the media. The cast and fans were and still are upset at the network for not giving the show a closing episode. Especially Isabel who was the 1st African-American Actress to win an Emmy for her role on the show. “Isabel was upset about that til the day she died” Marla said about her friend’s feelings about the network lack of respect for the cast. Many of the cast members starred in movies, television and their own series, but sadly a decade after the show was canceled, many of the cast members begin to pass away, staring with Roxie who died from breast cancer in 1995. Her onscreen husband Cover died in 2006 from pneumonia. Benedict died 2 years later from unknown causes. Mike Evans who was begged to return to the show in 1979 died from throat cancer in 2005. Isabel died from natural causes a few weeks after she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004 and most recently Ned Wertimer who played Ralph The Doorman died from injuries that he suffered after falling in his home. A year prior to his death, Sherman died from lung issues and what was sad about his passing was him dying with a network of only 50,000 dollars.
I was glad that TV One chose to do a documentary on The Jeffersons, but I also feel that the show isn’t unsung because not only was it groundbreaking, it lasted for 11 seasons. As for the documentary as a whole, they were many factors that the episode failed to mention. Jenny being a bi-racial lady. The documentary should have addressed that along with featuring interview clips from Roxie, Franklin, Paul and Ned. The documentary also failed to speak about Paul’s and Ned’s characters who fans loved and still love and they didn’t even mention about Lionel and Jenny becoming parents. Also missing was the mentioning of the cast reuniting to play version of the show which did well in the box office and earned them a new generation of fans. Isabel starring in her short-lived sitcom “Isabel’s Hollywood Hotel” should have been briefly mentioned and since the documentary mentioned about how the cast met with rappers at a summit, Nelly sampling The Jefferson’s theme song for his single “Batter Up” with Sherman making an appearance in the video would have made sense to be included. I would have also love for the rest of the surviving cast members Damon Evans, Andrew Ruby, Jay Hammer and Eboni Smith to speak about the show.
I’m a huge fan of The Jeffersons and while it’s sad that they never got their closing episode they rightfully deserve, I’m glad to know that the show made an impact on television and is continuing to inspire people to dream big and they can live the high life. Hopefully TV One can have more detailed documentaries in the future.
This review is dedicated to the legacies and memories of Isabel Sanford, Sherman Hemsley, Zara Cully, Mike Evans, Roxie Roker, Franklin Cover, Paul Benedict and Ned Wertimer.