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The Jeffersons: A Look Back at the Iconic Classic TV Show

This article is a part of my Melanin Arts series, which is dedicated to the achievements and contributions of artistic people of color.

The Jeffersons first appeared as next door neighbors to the Bunkers on All in the Family, to the chagrin of Archie, and the delight of Edith, Gloria and Michael!

The Jeffersons first appeared as next door neighbors to the Bunkers on All in the Family, to the chagrin of Archie, and the delight of Edith, Gloria and Michael!

The Jeffersons appeared on the CBS television network from 1975 to 1985, it was one of the longest running sitcoms in television history, the second-longest television sitcom to feature a predominantly black cast, and the first to feature a married interracial couple.

All in The Family

The Jeffersons tells the tale of a fictional black family who rises from a humble, but meager existence to working class, and then finally, to upper middle class. The family is first introduced in an episode of another classic TV show, All in the Family, thus making it spin-off.

In the first appearances of the fictional family, Louise Jefferson, aka Weezie, is introduced as a neighbor to the fictional Bunker clan, along with her son Lionel. Louise Jefferson was played by veteran black actress, Isabel Sanford, and Lionel Jefferson was portrayed by black actor, Mike Evans.

Notably absent from the first appearances of the family, was the head of the Jefferson clan, George Jefferson. Director Norman Lear wrote the part of George Jefferson specifically for Sherman Hemsley. However, because Hemsley was otherwise engaged in a Broadway musical at the time, the character was never seen for most of the first appearances of the family while they were fixtures on All in the Family.

The George Jefferson character was muted, and Lear created the role of Henry Jefferson, played by veteran black actor, Mel Stewart. Henry was written in as George's younger brother who watched over Louise and Lionel until George could arrive to be with his family.

Before George Jefferson, there was his brother, Henry Jefferson, who watched over the family until George could arrive to their new home on Hauser Street in Queens, NY.

Before George Jefferson, there was his brother, Henry Jefferson, who watched over the family until George could arrive to their new home on Hauser Street in Queens, NY.

Archie Bunker's Relationship with Lionel Jefferson: It's Complicated...

The Jefferson family was written into the All in the Family script as a foil to Archie Bunker's racist ways. The Jeffersons moved next door to the Bunkers, which flared Archie Bunker's racism, yet was a delight for Edith, Mike and Gloria. Even though Archie was seemingly racist to the core in some of his thoughts and views, he developed a genuine bond and respect for Lionel Jefferson.

Lionel Jefferson was the typical strong, opinionated young black man of the 1970s. He often one-upped Archie Bunker's ignorant, racist statements by feigning stupidity and falling into racist stereotypes to mock Bunker, because Lionel Jefferson was one of the few people to see that Archie Bunker's racism stemmed more from true ignorance than actual malice.

Archie Bunker had a genuine appreciation for Lionel Jefferson, because he could see that the young man was "a credit to his race." Lionel was unfazed by Bunker's racism, he felt sorry for him, because he could see the man was truly ignorant

Archie Bunker had a genuine appreciation for Lionel Jefferson, because he could see that the young man was "a credit to his race." Lionel was unfazed by Bunker's racism, he felt sorry for him, because he could see the man was truly ignorant

In a way, Lionel felt sorry for Archie's ignorance, so he let the man believe he was a mentor to him...which was completely ridiculous, and often turned out to be in reverse, as Archie Bunker learned far more from Lionel Jefferson than Lionel ever learned form him. (Here's to the genius of Normal Lear!)

When George Jefferson came to live with his family next door to the Bunkers, sparks began to fly between George and Archie, because as it turned out...George Jefferson was just as racist as Archie Bunker, if not moreso, because George freely used racist epithets...and he didn't care who heard it or how they felt about it.

In any event, Lionel Jefferson didn't have to endure Archie Bunker for too long, because his family would soon enjoy prosperity that would take them away from his warped next door neighbor.

The Jeffersons became a bona-fide classic television spin-off when the family moved away from the working class, Queens neighborhood shown in All in the Family, to an upper middle class Manhattan apartment... complete with a totally separate television show.

The Jeffersons "Move on Up" to the East Side, to a Deluxe Apartment in the Sky

It was January 18, 1975, when the CBS television network first aired The Jeffersons as a solo television show, complete and apart from All in the Family. George, Louise and Lionel were now joined by Mother Jefferson, Florence Johnston, the housekeeper, interracial married couple Tom and Helen Willis and their young adult children Jenny and Alan Willis, another neighbor Harry Bentley, Ralph, the doorman and Charlie, the bartender.

True to Norman Lear fashion, the show at times dealt with heavy topics, such as racism, alcoholism, suicide, gun control, and transgender issues; however, the overall reigning theme of the show was traditional 30 minute sitcom antics, and the result was often side splitting comedy!

If it wasn't Mother Jefferson being the epitome of a rude mother-in-law to Louise, it was those ridiculously funny exchanges between George and Florence. Each week, no matter what the main topic of the show turned out to be, or how serious it was, audiences could rest assured that true comedy lay just beneath the surface.

The Jeffersons became a runaway hit, and television and film stars and all kinds of celebrities made regular guest appearances, from Sammy Davis, Jr. and Gladys Knight to a young Jaleel White and Donald Trump.

The characters on the show morphed and evolved throughout its eleven year run, with Mother Jefferson's death (off screen), a complete three year disappearance of Harry Bentley, Lionel and Jenny Willis' marriage, child birth (Jessica Jefferson) and subsequent break-up, and Florence's eventual move to a better position.

The show produced two short-lived spin-off series, one for the character, Florence Johnston (Marla Gibbs), and another based on Louise Jefferson's niece (Lynn Moody), that show featured a young George Clooney.

The Controversial Series Finale of The Jeffersons

The Jeffersons ended its decade long run in controversy after CBS abruptly canceled the series without giving notice to anyone, not even the cast and crew. The cast was not informed the show was ending until after the July 2, 1985, episode "Red Robins" aired. Actor Sherman Hemsley said he learned that the show was canceled by reading it in the newspaper, and he often referred to this action as a show of disrespect from the CBS television network.

Sadly, the show never had a final episode, and the actors never took a final bow. However, The Jeffersons remains one of the most beloved shows in television history, and the following decade would produce another TV show that would address this issue...

The Final Episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" Shows George and Weezie Jefferson Attempting to Buy The Banks' Mansion - And yes, That is Arnold and Mr. Drummond from "Diff'rent Strokes" attempting to buy the house as well...

The Final Episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" Shows George and Weezie Jefferson Attempting to Buy The Banks' Mansion - And yes, That is Arnold and Mr. Drummond from "Diff'rent Strokes" attempting to buy the house as well...

The Jeffersons' Loose Ends Are Finally Tied on The Series Finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was another TV sitcom that featured a predominantly black cast, and starred Will Smith (This is for people who might have lived underneath that proverbial rock - But, I digress). In the 1996 series finale of the "Fresh Prince", George and Louie Jefferson appeared as the buyers of the Banks' family mansion.

It appears that George and Weezie did indeed make a final "move on up" from upper middle class to true wealth. Fans of the show appreciated this gesture by Will Smith and the producers of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as it gave us a proper ending to the saga of the Jefferson family that we could all accept.

If you want to know how the cast of the show has fared since its departure from television more than 30 years ago, click to learn about The Cast of the Jeffersons: Where are they Now?

The Rare Full Closing Theme of "The Jeffersons," sung by JaNet DuBois

How Much Do You Remember About "The Jeffersons?"

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What was George Jefferson's job before he owned his cleaning store?
    • He cleaned floors
    • He worked at the plant on the dock with Archie Bunker
  2. Which Lionel is considered to be the "best?"
    • The second Lionel
    • The first Lionel
  3. What black actress wrote and sang the "The Jeffersons" theme song?
    • Sheryl Lee Ralph from "Dreamgirls" fame.
    • JaNet DuBois from "Good Times" fame.
  4. What was the name of George Jefferson's brother?
    • Henry Jefferson
    • James Jefferson
  5. What is the name of the comedian who helps George and Tom Willis after they were scammed on an island?
    • Eddie Murphy
    • Garrett Morris

Answer Key

  1. He cleaned floors
  2. The first Lionel
  3. JaNet DuBois from "Good Times" fame.
  4. Henry Jefferson
  5. Garrett Morris

Comments

Rachelle Williams (author) from Tempe, AZ on October 01, 2018:

I knew I couldn't ever remember the Jeffersons taking a final bow, and it turns out that CBS just plain shut them down... It was thoughtful of Will Smith and the gang to sort of give them a final bow on their show... Thanks for reading my articles!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 30, 2018:

Thanks for the memories. From you I learned of the Jefferson's appearance in the last episode of French Prince. That was thoughtful!