Roxie Roker was a stage and television actress best known for her portrayal of Helen Willis on the hit television series The Jeffersons, in which Roker and actor Franklin Cover portrayed the first interracial married couple on primetime television. A Miami native, Roker spent most of her young life in Brooklyn, New York, where she became an accomplished stage actress before entering the film and television industry. In her later life Roker worked as a children's rights activist in Los Angeles and was honored by the city for her service. Part of a famous family, Roker was the mother of famed rock star Lenny Kravitz and the cousin of broadcaster Al Roker. She died in 1995 of complications arising from breast cancer.
Roxie Albertha Roker was born on August 28, 1929, in Miami, Florida. Her father, Albert Roker, immigrated to Miami from the Bahamas, where he met and married Roker's mother, Bessie. Her family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when she was young, and she attended public schools in Brooklyn. After high school, Roker attended Howard University in Washington, DC, and received a bachelor of fine arts degree with an emphasis on drama. She was a member of the Howard Players, the university's theater group, and performed in a number of productions in the Washington, DC, area. After college Roker traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon in England, where she studied acting at the Shakespeare Institute, an extension of the University of Birmingham.
Roker returned to Brooklyn and took a job as a secretary for the National Broadcasting Company's (NBC) corporate offices in Manhattan. She spent many nights performing in off-Broadway productions and made a name for herself in the amateur theater scene. In 1962 Roker married Seymour "Sy" Kravitz, a television producer for NBC. Roker's interracial marriage to Kravitz would mirror her later role on The Jeffersons. In 1964 the couple had a son, Leonard "Lenny" Kravitz, who later gained international fame as a rock musician.
In 1968 Roker was hired to host a local television program for station WNEW in Brooklyn called Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was the first New York television show written, produced, and presented by African Americans. On the historic series, Roker interviewed residents of the predominantly black "Bed- Stuy" community, helping to bring the problems of that neighborhood to the public eye. Roker remained with the series for a year before leaving to pursue acting full time.
Roker joined the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), a theater troupe that performed off-Broadway productions in New York. She was one of a list of African-American performers who spent time with the company before going on to have major careers in film and television, including Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington, Rosalind Cash, and Danny Glover. Roker performed in a number of productions with the NEC, including two of famed African-American playwright Joseph A. Walker's original plays: Ododo, which was a musical play about African history, and The River Niger, which portrayed African-American life in Harlem. It was for her portrayal of Mattie Williams in The River Niger that Roker won an Obie Award from the Village Voice in 1973 and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1974.
In 1975 Roker and her family left New York for Los Angeles, where she auditioned for a role in an upcoming CBS television series, The Jeffersons. The series was a spin-off of the popular series All in the Family and focused on the lives of George and Louise Jefferson (played by Sherman Helmsley and Isabel Sanford) and their circle of friends in New York City. Roker auditioned for the role of Helen Willis, best friend of Louise Jefferson, who was in an interracial marriage to a white man. At her audition, producer Norman Lear reportedly expressed doubts that audiences would believe Roker being married to a white man. Roker reportedly showed producers a photo of her white husband, Sy Kravitz, and was then accepted for the role.
The Jeffersons remained on the air for eleven years, earning distinction as the longest running African-American sitcom in American history. Throughout the course of the series, the writers, directors, and actors delved into a number of issues involving race and class relations, and the show is often credited for breaking new ground in terms of portraying African-American life. Roker's on-screen marriage was the first interracial marriage on a network series, and the show addressed the issue of interracial relationships and acceptance within both African-American and white communities.
At the start of the series, Helmsley's character, George Jefferson, expressed distaste at Tom and Helen Willis's interracial relationship, calling them "zebras" or "chocolate and vanilla." Although racial jokes of this nature were intended to be humorous, the show's writers also used the relationship between Tom and Helen Willis to take a serious look at intolerance towards interracial couples. As the show progressed, the Willises' daughter married one of the Jeffersons' sons, forcing George Jefferson to confront and eventually overcome his racial prejudices.
Roker remained with the series from 1975 to 1985, when the show was cancelled unexpectedly without airing a finale. As the show ended, Roker was also undergoing other major changes, including a divorce from Kravitz. She returned to the theater and later reunited with former Jeffersons cast members for a Best of the Jeffersons stage production. Roker also made guest appearances in a number of television series during the 1970s and '80s, including A Different World, Punky Brewster, The Love Boat, and Cagney and Lacey. On the stage, Roker toured with the theatrical production Legends, which also featured Carol Channing and Mary Martin.
Though she continued acting in minor productions, Roker spent much of her later life as an activist for children's rights in Los Angeles. As a member of the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, Roker gave speeches to groups in the Los Angeles area on children's rights and was honored twice by the Los Angeles City Council for her efforts. Roker died of breast cancer in Los Angeles on January 5, 1995, at sixty-six years old. Her son, musician Lenny Kravitz, abbreviated a national tour to attend his mother's funeral.
At a Glance …
Born Roxie Albertha Roker on August 28, 1929, in Miami, FL; died December 2, 1995, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Albert and Bessie Roker; married Seymour Kravitz, 1962, divorced 1985; children: Lenny Kravitz (born 1964). Education: Howard University, BFA, drama, 1952.
Career: WNEW-TV, television host, 1968-69; Negro Ensemble Company, actress, 1970-75; CBS Television, actress in The Jeffersons, 1975-85; actress in film and television, 1985-95.
Memberships: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, Los Angeles.
Awards: Off-Broadway Theater Award, Village Voice, 1972; Adnikra Star, Howard University, 2000.
Throughout her career Roker distinguished herself as a versatile and talented actress, comfortable both on the small stage and the big screen. Her career spanned decades of tremendous change in the entertainment industry, when African-American performers were beginning to find roles that celebrated their own culture and history. Roker's groundbreaking role on The Jeffersons was among the first to address issues that Roker knew well from her own experience, and opened the door for a public dialogue on interracial relationships.
Rosalee Pritchard, 1970-71.
The River Niger, 1972-73.
Best of the Jeffersons, 1993.
The Jeffersons, 1975-85.
Amazon Women on the Moon, 1987.
Statistically Speaking, 1995.
New York Amsterdam News, December 30, 1995.
New York Times, June 25, 1998.
People, December 6, 1995; December 25, 1995.
Additional Information for this biography was obtained in an interview with representatives of the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect conducted on March 17, 2008 and in an interview with Cynthia Snyder of Cynthia Snyder public relations conducted on March 17, 2008.
—Micah L. Issitt
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