In 1971, independent producer Norman Lear introduced the most controversial sitcom in television's brief history. That show was the groundbreaking CBS program, All in the Family. One particular occasional character was Archie Bunker's irascible black neighbor, George Jefferson (originally played by Mel Stewart). Jefferson never backed down from a fight, sparring successfully with the bigoted Bunker and generally winning the argument. In 1973 the role was assumed by veteran actor Sherman Hemsley. This character was such a hit with viewers that Helmsley was soon cast in the spin-off series, The Jeffersons, which first aired on CBS Television in January of 1975 and was, like All in the Family, the brainchild of writer-director and independent producer Norman Lear.
The Jeffersons focused on the lives of George and his wife Louise Jefferson—a nouveau riche African American couple. The show's gospel-toned opening musical theme, "Movin' on Up!" played while George and Louise moved into "their dee-luxe apartment in the sky." George was a successful businessman, millionaire, and the owner of seven dry-cleaning stores. Louise (played by Isabel Sanford) was a former maid attempting to adjust to the life of a woman of means. Together they lived in a ritzy penthouse apartment on Manhattan's fashionable and moneyed East Side with their son, Lionel (played at various times by Damon Evans and Mike Evans). Their home was filled expensive furnishings, and they even had their own black housekeeper, a wise-cracking maid named Florence (played by Marla Gibbs).
A unique supporting cast included an eccentric Englishman neighbor named Harry Bentley (Paul Benedict), the ever-obsequious Ralph the Doorman (Ned Wetimer), and most significantly, Helen and Tom Willis, (Roxie Roker, Franklin Cover) an interracial couple with two adult children—one Black, one White—the first such scenario on prime time television. George's elderly mother, the quietly cantankerous "Mother Jefferson," played by Zara Cully, made occasional appearances until the actress's death in 1978.
George Jefferson was rude and headstrong and referred to white people as "honkies." An article in Ebony magazine described him as "bombastic, frenetic, boastful, ill-mannered, prejudiced, and scheming." Louise, referred to by George as "Wheezy" spent most of her time apologizing for him. Some of the funniest moments came with the repartee between George and Florence the maid, who contributed to the humor with her continuous putdowns of George. She referred to him as "Shorty" and never missed a chance to put him in his place, fully contemptuous of the expected etiquette between employee and employer.
George, though a millionaire businessman, was often positioned as a buffoon or the butt of everyone's joke. As the Ebony article noted, "He was often the victim of his own acts: a put-down that backfires, a contrivance that goes astray, an ego-filled balloon suddenly deflated." No one, not even his maid took him seriously. Some blacks questioned whether audiences were laughing with George and his contempt of convention, or at George as he made a fool of himself? As with Amos 'n' Andy some twenty years prior, America's black community remained divided in their assessment of the program—even as the conservatism of the Reagan years brought a slight change in the tone of the program.
The Jeffersons was an enormously popular and highly rated program that lasted ten years on prime time television. Along with two other Lear products (Good Times and Sanford & Son) it featured a mostly African-American cast, the first such programming since the cancellation of the infamous Amos 'n' Andy Show in 1953. With its sometimes biting humor and daring scenarios it helped set a new tone in prime time television, while proving that programming with black casts could be successful and profitable, earning it a significant place in the history of 1970s television.
—Pamala S. Deane
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