Jeffersons, The


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About

The Jeffersons, which appeared on CBS television from 1975 to 1985, focused on the lives of a nouveau riche African-American couple, George and Louise Jefferson. George Jefferson was a successful businessman, millionaire and owner of seven dry cleaning stores. He lived with his wife in a ritzy penthouse apartment on Manhattan's fashionable and moneyed East Side. "We're movin' on up!" intoned the musical theme of the show opener that featured George, Louise and a moving van in front of "their de-luxe apartment in the sky."

The program was conceived by independent producers, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. This team's creation of highly successful and often controversial sitcoms during the 1970s and early 1980s, helped to change television history. Programs such as Maude, Sanford and Son, and Good Times enjoyed frequent rankings amongst the top-ten most watched programs.

The Jeffersons was a spin-off of one of 1970s television's most notable television sitcoms, All in the Family. In 1973, Lear cast Sherman Hemsley in the role of George Jefferson, Archie Bunker's irascible and upwardly mobile black neighbor. This character was such a hit with viewers that Hemsley was soon cast in the spin-off series, The Jeffersons.

George and Louise Jefferson lead lives that reflected the trappings of money and success. Their home was filled expensive furnishings; art lined the walls. They even had their own black housekeeper, a wise-cracking maid named Florence. The supporting cast consisted of a number of unique characters including neighbor Harry Bentley, an eccentric Englishman who often made a mess of things; the Willises, a mixed-race couple with two adult children--one black, one white; and, the ever-obsequious Ralph the Doorman, who knew no shame when it came to earning a tip. Occasional characters included George's mother, the elderly and quietly cantankerous "Mother Jefferson" (the actress, Zara Cully died in 1978), and George's college-aged son (who was portrayed during various periods by two different actors).

The George Jefferson character was conceptualized as an Archie Bunker in blackface. George was intolerant, rude, and stubborn; he referred to White people as "honkies." He was a short, mean, bigoted popinjay who balked at manners. Louise, his long-suffering wife, spent most of her time apologizing for her husband's behavior. Florence, the maid, contributed a great deal of comic relief, with her continuous put-downs of George. She was not afraid of his of angry outbursts, and in fact had little regard for him or his tirades. She referred to him as "Shorty," and never missed a chance to put him in his place.

The program was enormously popular and remained on prime-time television for ten years. There are a number of factors that position this program as an important facet of recent television history. First, The Jeffersons was one of three programs of the period to feature African-Americans in leading roles--the first such programming since the cancellation of the infamous Amos 'n' Andy show in 1953. The Jeffersons was the first television program to feature an interracial married couple, and it offered an uncommon, albeit comic, portrayal of a successful African American family. Lastly, The Jeffersons is one of several programs of the period to rely heavily on confrontational humor. Along with All in the Family, and Sanford and Son, the show was also one of many to repopularize old-style ethnic humor.

It also serves to examine some of the controversy that surrounded The Jeffersons. Throughout its ten-year run on prime-time television, the show did not go without its share of criticism. The range of complaints, which emanated from media scholars, television critics and everyday black viewers ranged from the show's occasional lapses into the negative stereotyping to its sometimes lack of ethnic realism. To some, the early Louise Jefferson character was nothing more than an old-south Mammy stereotype. And George, though a millionaire businessman, was generally positioned as nothing more than a buffoon or the butt of someone's joke. Even his own maid had no respect for him. Some blacks questioned, "Are we laughing with George as he balks at convention, or at George as he continuously makes a fool of himself."

Ironically, as the show continued into the conservatism of the Reagan years the tone of the program shifted. Louise Jefferson's afro disappeared and so did her poor English. There was no mention of her former life as a housekeeper. George's racism was toned down and the sketches were rendered more palatable as to appeal to a wider audience. As with Amos 'n' Andy some twenty years prior, America's black community remained divided in its assessment of the program.

This period of television history was a shifting one for television programmers seeking to create a show featuring African Americans. Obvious stereotypes could no longer be sold, yet the pabulum of shows like Julia was equally as unacceptable. The Jeffersons joined other Lear/Yorkin programs in setting a new tone for prime-time television, exploring issues that TV had scarcely touched before, while it proved that programs with blacks in leading roles could indeed be successful commodities.

-Pam Deane

CAST

George Jefferson .............................Sherman Hemsley

Louise Jefferson.....................................Isabel Sanford

Florence Johnston .....................................Marla Gibbs

Helen Willis ..............................................Roxie Roker

Tom Willis..............................................Franklin Cover

Lionel Jefferson (1975, 1979-)......................Mike Evans

Jenny Willis Jefferson ..........................Berlinda Tolbert

Harry Bentley..........................................Paul Benedict 

Mother Jefferson (1975-1978).........................Zara Cully

Lionel Jefferson (1975-1978).....................Damon Evans

Ralph the Doorman .................................Ned Wertimer

PRODUCERS    

George Sunga, Jay Moriarity, Mike Mulligan, Don Nichol, Michael Ross, Bernie West, Sy Rosen, Jack Shea, Ron Leavitt, David Duclon

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS

January 1975-August 1975   Saturday 8:30-9:30

September 1975-October 1976   Saturday 8:00-8:30

November 1976-January 1977   Wednesday 8:00-8:30

September 1977-March 1978   Monday 8:00-8:30

April 1978-May 1978   Saturday 8:00-8:30

June 1978-September 1978   Monday 8:00-8:30

September 1978-January 1979   Wednesday 8:00-8:30

January 1979-March 1979   Wednesday 9:30-10:00

March 1979-June 1979   Wednesday 8:00-8:30

June 1979-September 1982   Sunday 9:30-10:00

September 1982-December 1984   Sunday 9:00-9:30

January 1985-March 1985   Tuesday 8:00-8:30

April 1985   Tuesday 8:30-9:00

June 1985   Tuesday 8:30-9:00

June 1985-July 1985   Tuesday 8:00-8:30

FURTHER READING

Bogel, Donald. Blacks, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film. New York: Garland, 1973.

_______________. Blacks in American Television and Film. New York: Garland, 1988.

Friedman, Lester D. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana, Illinois and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for "Blackness." Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law, America's Greatest TV Shows and People Who Created Them. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Taylor, Ella. Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1990.

Highlights
Sherman Hemsley on the creation of the "walk" for George Jefferson's character on The Jeffersons
02:04
Marla Gibbs on being cast on The Jeffersons
01:46
Fred Silverman on All In The Family spinoff The Jeffersons, the casting of the show, and its ratings success
01:21
John Rich on casting Mike Evan as "Lionel Jefferson" on All in the Family
06:45
Rita Riggs on costuming Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as "George and Louise Jefferson" on All in the Family and The Jeffersons
01:39
Who talked about this show

Marla Gibbs

View Interview
Marla Gibbs on being cast on The Jeffersons
01:46
Marla Gibbs on staying behind at the first table read of The Jeffersons to offer her opinions
01:34
Marla Gibbs on how she kept her job at United Airlines on The Jeffersons until her role became a regular one.
02:46
Marla Gibbs on practical jokes done on the set of The Jeffersons
01:54
Marla Gibbs on creating the memorable sequence from classic The Jeffersons episode "Mr. Piano Man," which had her crawling under the piano in a crowded party to try to answer the front door before George Jefferson
01:41
Marla Gibbs on working with her Jeffersons co-star Sherman Hemsley
02:04
Marla Gibbs on Sherman Hemsley's request to take "honky" out of the script when refering to George Jefferson's now-friend Tom Willis
00:13
Marla Gibbs on her Jeffersons co-star Isabel Sanford
01:06
Marla Gibbs on co-starring on The Jeffersons; on Florence Johnston, the character she played (continued)
16:30
Marla Gibbs on returning to The Jeffersons after her short-lived spinoff series Checking In; on the cancellation of The Jeffersons; on the legacy of the series
05:19

Robert Guillaume

View Interview
Robert Guillaume on appearing on The Jeffersons in the episode "George Won't Talk" (airdate: November 8, 1975)
01:27

Sherman Hemsley

View Interview
Sherman Hemsley on the creation of the "walk" for the of character "George Jefferson" on The Jeffersons
01:36
Sherman Hemsley on how "George" changed over the course of The Jeffersons
01:21
Sherman Hemsley on walking on Paul Benedict's back during The Jeffersons
01:22
Sherman Hemsley on how Isabel Sanford's character's "Weezy" nickname came about on The Jeffersons, and his working relationship with her
01:04
Sherman Hemsley on audience reception of The Jeffersons
01:36
Sherman Hemsley on Zara Cully's "Mother Olivia Jefferson" character 
00:56
Sherman Hemsley on some of his favorite episodes of The Jeffersons
01:29
Sherman Hemsley on how The Jeffersons functioned as a sitcom, and what "George" might be doing today
00:56

David Isaacs

View Interview
Ken Levine and David Isaacs on selling their first script, a spec for The Jeffersons
02:42

Seaman Jacobs

View Interview
Seaman Jacobs on writing for The Jeffersons
03:54

H. Wesley Kenney

View Interview
H. Wesley Kenney on directing the pilot episode of The Jeffersons
01:10

Norman Lear

View Interview
Norman Lear on spinning off The Jeffersons, casting Sherman Hemsley as "George Jefferson," and his portrayal of black life on various shows
04:36

David Lee

View Interview
David Lee on getting his foot in the door as a writer on The Jeffersons
02:51
David Lee on his first script for The Jeffersons
01:49
David Lee on becoming a staff writer on The Jeffersons
02:12
David Lee on his vision for The Jeffersons and the state of the show when he started
03:28
David Lee on his and Peter Casey's day-to-day experience writing The Jeffersons
03:53
David Lee on writing for the cast of The Jeffersons
04:17
David Lee on the legacy of The Jeffersons
01:33
David Lee on the end of The Jeffersons
01:33
David Lee on what he learned from writing The Jeffersons
00:39

Ken Levine

View Interview
Ken Levine and David Isaacs on selling their first script, a spec for The Jeffersons 
02:42

Garrett Morris

View Interview
Garrett Morris on appearing on the TV show, The Jeffersons
01:01

Michael Moye

View Interview
Michael Moye on writing for and becoming Story Editor and Executive Producer on The Jeffersons
07:13
Michael Moye on network notes on The Jeffersons
01:59
Michael Moye on meeting future writing partner Ron Leavitt on The Jeffersons
01:35
Michael Moye on favorite episodes of The Jeffersons and leaving the show
05:44
Michael Moye on a change in the writing process on The Jeffersons
03:52

Carroll Pratt

View Interview
Carroll Pratt on providing a laugh track for The Carol Burnett Show, The Jeffersons, Mama's Family, and The Bob Newhart Show, and on not getting screen credit for his work
03:35

Hector Ramirez

View Interview
Hector Ramirez on working as a camera operator for The Jeffersons
01:07

John Rich

View Interview
John Rich on casting Mike Evan as "Lionel Jefferson" on All in the Family
06:45
John Rich on how Sherman Hemsley was cast as George Jefferson on All in the Family , and later, The Jeffersons (spin-off)
03:35

Rita Riggs

View Interview
Rita Riggs on costuming Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as "George and Louise Jefferson" on All in the Family and The Jeffersons
01:36
Rita Riggs on costuming the cast of The Jeffersons, including Isabel Sanford as "Louise Jefferson" and Roxie Roker as "Helen Willis"
03:07
Rita Riggs on costuming Mike Evans and Damon Evans as "Lionel Jefferson", and the rest of the cast of The Jeffersons
04:37

Isabel Sanford

View Interview
Isabel Sanford on her reluctance to leave All in the Family, to do the spin-off The Jeffersons
02:08
Isabel Sanford on the audience reaction to The Jeffersons
01:20
Isabel Sanford on Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, and Bernard West the producers of The Jeffersons
03:16
Isabel Sanford on Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover as "Tom and Helen Willis on The Jeffersons, Paul Benedict as "Mr. Bentley", and Mike and Damon Evans as "Lionel Jefferson"
03:00
Isabel Sanford on Zara Cully as "Mother Jefferson" on The Jeffersons
02:14
Isabel Sanford on Marla Gibbs as "Florence Johnston", the maid of The Jeffersons and on the character of "Ralph the doorman"
02:00
Isabel Sanford on the notion of doing a reunion of The Jeffersons, and on working with Sammy Davis, Jr.
04:07
Isabel Sanford on winning an Emmy for playing "Louise Jefferson" on The Jeffersons
00:55
Isabel Sanford on The Jeffersons theme song
02:35
Isabel Sanford on the end of The Jeffersons, on being upset over never having an official final episode, and on the continued popularity of the series
04:25
Isabel Sanford on the relationship between "George and Louise Jefferson" on The Jeffersons
01:28
Isabel Sanford on how The Jeffersons, and "Louise Jefferson" will be remembered
04:37
Isabel Sanford on The Jeffersons legacy within the African-American community
02:26

Jack Shea

View Interview
Jack Shea on directing The Jeffersons, and the popularity and premise of the show 
02:09
Jack Shea on "George and Louise Jefferson" on The Jeffersons
01:10
Jack Shea on the cast of and producers on The Jeffersons
11:28
Jack Shea on why he left The Jeffersons

Fred Silverman

View Interview
Fred Silverman on All In The Family spinoff The Jeffersons, the casting of the show, and its ratings success
01:21

Jean Stapleton

View Interview
Jean Stapleton on the pilot of The Jeffersons, aired as the All in the Family episode "The Jeffersons Move Up"
00:50

George Sunga

View Interview
George Sunga on becoming a Producer on All in the Family and The Jeffersons
05:23
George Sunga on working with Norman Lear on All in the Family and The Jeffersons
01:34
George Sunga on making the transition from producing All in the Family to producing The Jeffersons
02:13
George Sunga on the cast of The Jeffersons
03:08
George Sunga on the diversity of the crew of The Jeffersons
01:58
George Sunga on working with the crew of The Jeffersons
01:59
George Sunga on All in the Family and The Jeffersons moving from Television City to Metro Media
04:01

Ben Wolf

View Interview
Ben Wolf on shooting The Jeffersons
01:37

Bud Yorkin

View Interview
Bud Yorkin on The Jeffersons and Good Times
01:38

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