Running for ten years, 11 seasons and 253 episodes, The Jeffersons is among the longest-lasting sitcoms of all time. The All in the Family spin-off centered on the titular couple and their move to an upscale new home in Manhattan, while the show itself broke new ground with its principally black cast, its depiction of interracial marriage and its occasional coverage of tough issues. Here are 20 things that you might not know about the CBS show, though.
20. The network tried to edit out the show’s first interracial kiss
Tom and Helen Willis – played by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker, respectively – made headlines when they became one of the inaugural interracial couples to ever appear on a TV show. But, sadly, not everyone behind the scenes was comfortable with their relationship. Numerous CBS executives, for example, wanted Tom and Helen’s first kiss to be removed from broadcast. Thankfully, though, executive producer Fred Silverman stood firm, and the smooch stayed in.
19. Franklin Cover received hate mail from bigoted viewers
Unfortunately, some viewers also took offence to Tom and Helen’s marriage. Cover was even sent abusive messages in reaction to the affection that Tom showed his wife. But both the star and the show’s producers refused to let the bigots win, and the series chose to keep pushing boundaries throughout its 11-season run.
18. Roxie Roker used to bring her future rock-star son on set
However, Roxie Roker was used to dealing with the prejudice surrounding interracial relationships. That was because the actress was part of such a pairing in real life. Roker was married to Sy Kravitz – of Jewish Ukrainian heritage – and the pair had a son together. In fact, the Jeffersons star regularly brought her child – none other than future rock star Lenny Kravitz – to the set of the show.
17. Mike Evans was reportedly fired over a pay dispute
The official line was that Mike Evans had given up the role of Lionel after just one season in order to concentrate on writing Good Times. However, a member of the Maude spin-off’s cast has since claimed that Evans didn’t jump but was pushed. Jimmie Walker has alleged that the actor was ultimately fired by Norman Lear after threatening to quit over a pay rise.
16. Damon Evans regretted playing Lionel
However, the actor who replaced Mike Evans later admitted that he regretted doing so. Damon Evans – no relation to Mike – spent four years playing the Jeffersons’ son Lionel before making way for his predecessor’s return. But Damon struggled to cope with losing his anonymity. “I uprooted myself from a role as a classical music student and was thrust in the public’s eye overnight,” he told Keith Boykin in 2007. “Talk about stress and adjustment issues.”
15. Willona from Good Times sings the theme tune
But Mike Evans isn’t the only connection that The Jeffersons has with Good Times. Ja’net Dubois – a.k.a. neighbor Willona Woods on the latter show – is the voice behind The Jeffersons’ infectious theme tune. The multi-talented star co-penned the track with Jeff Barry, the hitmaker behind girl group classics “Be My Baby” and “Then He Kissed Me.”
14. The cast weren’t officially informed about the show’s cancelation
Despite giving CBS one of the network’s most enduring hits, The Jeffersons’ cast weren’t even given a courtesy call about the show’s cancelation. George Jefferson himself, a.k.a. Sherman Hemsley, only discovered that he was out of a job via a newspaper article. Meanwhile, Louise Jefferson actress Isabel Sanford was told about the axing by a cousin.
13. The cast later reunited for a stage play
Disappointed by the underwhelming end to their ten years on air, the original cast of The Jeffersons decided to do something about it themselves. So the likes of Hemsley, Sanford and Maria Gibbs reunited in 1993 for a stage play designed to give the show a proper farewell. Taking in several cities, The Best of the Jeffersons was based on a trio of episodes of the sitcom from the early 1980s.
12. Isabel Sanford was hesitant about the spin-off
It’s worth noting, however, that Sanford initially wasn’t convinced about the potential of The Jeffersons. But when producers informed the star that they were taking her character Louise out of All in the Family regardless, she quickly got on board.
11. The Jeffersons’ own spin-off lasted just four episodes
Unfortunately, The Jeffersons’ very own spin-off didn’t enjoy quite the same level of success as its predecessor. Indeed, Checking In – which revolved around housekeeper Florence, played by Marla Gibbs – ran for only four episodes before being shelved by CBS in 1981. But Gibbs wasn’t out of work for long, as Checking In’s immediate failure was followed by Florence’s return to the Jefferson family.
10. Sherman Hemsley used to deliberately flub his lines
Sherman Hemsley often used to mess up his lines while filming – but that was nothing to do with poor memory or lack of preparation. Instead, the actor was frustrated with his character’s use of pejorative words such as “honky.” To encourage the scriptwriters to remove such expressions, then, Hemsley deliberately flubbed his dialogue until he got his own way.
9. The show went through 15 different time slots
The Jeffersons’ enduring success is made all the more impressive when you consider quite how often CBS bounced it around the schedules. In fact, the network changed the show’s time slot an incredible 15 times during its 11-year run. Unfortunately, its final shift – the Tuesday evening slot opposite NBC’s The A-Team –proved to be one change too many.
8. Marla Gibbs kept her day job for years
Fans of The Jeffersons booking a United Airlines flight in the mid-1970s may have gotten a surprise. Why? Well, Marla Gibbs continued to work as a reservation agent for the company for years after she had started playing housekeeper Florence. The actress only gave up her day job when producers turned her character from an occasional guest into a full-time regular.
7. Hemsley and Sanford weren’t the best of friends
As with many on-screen couples, there was no love lost off screen between the two main stars of The Jeffersons. Sanford was reportedly disappointed by how unattractive and small her TV husband was, while she also allegedly thought him to be overbearing. In return, Hemsley is said to have found Sanford rather full of herself.
6. Hemsley and Sanford both had on-set nicknames
Sanford also had a less than complimentary nickname for her on-screen husband: “Neck.” According to the actress, that particular bodily feature stood out on Hemsley. Furthermore, Sanford’s The Jeffersons co-stars gave her a nickname – although it was far less derisory. Apparently, she was dubbed “The Queen” due to her natural elegance and regal poise.
5. There was a real-life Weezy
As fans know, Sanford’s character was handed a nickname too. Louise Jefferson was mistakenly called “Weezy” by Hemsley during the filming of one particular episode, but producers liked it and so the name stuck. Weezy also happened to be the name of a girl that Hemsley had had a crush on during his early years in Philadelphia.
4. The show annoyed the Jeffersons’ building’s real-life residents
The luxurious Manhattan building that the Jeffersons moved into was actually Park Lane Towers on 185 East 85th Street. But the real-life residents of the property may not have been fans of the show. Indeed, those who lived in the deluxe condominiums were reportedly disgruntled about their home being constantly referred to as “The Jefferson Building.”
3. George Jefferson was written specifically for Hemsley
Sanford may not have been a fan of Hemsley, but producer Norman Lear certainly was. In fact, the show creator had the actor in mind to play George Jefferson from the start. And even when Hemsley found himself unavailable in the early stages of filming All in the Family, Lear still fought for him. Instead, Lear simply hired a temporary stand-in for Hemsley until the star’s Broadway production finished its run.
2. Franklin Cover made a weekly commute from NY to LA
The Jeffersons may have been filmed in Los Angeles, but Franklin Cover wasn’t interested in living in California full-time. Instead, the actor spent weekends at his New York home with his wife and kids. Then he traveled to LA for filming – residing at an apartment there – before commuting back to the Big Apple after that week’s shoots had finished.
1. Sanford was 20 years older than Hemsley
Sanford and Hemsley may have convinced as husband and wife, but the pair were in fact two decades apart in real life. Sanford had been born in 1917; Hemsley, meanwhile, had entered the world in 1938. But that wasn’t the show’s only notable age difference, as Hemsley was in fact just 11 years older than his on-screen son Mike Evans.