While you may think you know all there is to know about this iconic show, there may actually be a few facts you missed about “The Jeffersons”.
The Master Producer
Legendary producer and show creator, Norman Lear, who was behind the creation of “The Jeffersons” had quite a few successful shows in his resume. He was behind shows like “Sanford and Son”, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, “All in the Family”, and “One Day at a Time” among others.
“The Jeffersons” went on to be his second longest-running show and he went on to create other notable shows like “Silver Spoons” and “The Facts of Life”.
The Truth is in the Toilets
The Jeffersons had moved into a very nice, spacious apartment, even by today’s standards. One of the not-so-subtle commentaries on how dramatically their lives had changed since their dry cleaning business took off was when George Jefferson decided to flush all four of their toilets at the same time.
This was to show not only that well, they had four toilets, but that the plumbing must have been great too.
The Kiss Controversy
Featuring a successful, African American couple, “The Jeffersons” was already a rather progressive show for the time. But there was one scene that a number of CBS executives thought was not appropriate. Sadly, several of the executives were opposed to the kiss between Tom and Helen Willis, an interracial couple on the show.
Thankfully though, Fred Silverman (an executive producer) was able to push for the scene to remain in the episode.
Time Slot Chaos
Studio executives often fight to get their shows to air during a certain time slot so as to get more viewers and higher ratings. But “The Jeffersons” time slots were all over the place. In fact, during the show’s eleven seasons, it appeared in fifteen different time slots.
The chaotic schedule over the years didn’t seem to negatively impact the show though as it became a cult-classic comedy.
Starting Out in Doubt
When studio executives assemble a cast for a new show, they most likely assume that each actor or actress is fully invested and confident in the project. But, actress Isabel Sanford, (Louise Jefferson) had her share of doubts about the future success of the show.
And not only was she unsure of how well it would do, but she was also apprehensive to play the role of Louise. Thankfully she could soon put her doubts to rest.
A Solid Nickname
Throughout the course of the show, George Jefferson was known to call his wife, Louise, “Wheezy” as a nickname. It seemed totally natural to the viewers, but it turns out that the nickname wasn’t in any of the scripts. Instead, it was a clever little “mistake” by actor Sherman Hemsley.
He had actually given the nickname “Wheezy” to a woman he had known in the past and somehow he let the same name slip on set.
The Age Gap
Perhaps one of the reasons actress Isabel Sanford was apprehensive to take on the role of Louise Jefferson was because of who was cast as her husband. Sherman Hemsley who was chosen to portray her husband was actually twenty-one years her junior.
Isabel was concerned that the audience wouldn’t believe them as an on-screen couple. Turns out she had nothing to worry about as the audience didn’t pick up on the age gap.
And the Height Gap
Isabel Sanford’s last protest to being cast as Louise Sanford was that Sherman Hemsley was (in her opinion) very short to be her on-screen husband. But, the fact that Hemsley was shorter than Sanford only added to the quirkiness and comedic aspect of the show and made them stand out as a TV couple.
Despite what it might have looked like on paper, the casting of Sanford and Hemsley turned out to be a match made in TV heaven.
Marla’s Big Break
Actress Marla Gibbs, who played housekeeper Florence Johnston on the show, was also a reservation agent for United Airlines. Originally, her role was supposed to be very small in order to allow her to keep her job with United Airlines.
But, two years into the show, Gibbs had to leave her job because the audience really liked her character and she began making more appearances on-screen. We bet she liked her new job better.
The Kravitz Connection
One especially interesting fact about “The Jeffersons” is that actress Roxie Roker, (who played Helen Willis) was cast as part of an interracial couple.
On-screen, she was married to a white man and she was also married to one in real-life; filmmaker Sy Kravitz. The couple had a son who would grow up to be musician Lenny Kravitz and Lenny went on to have a daughter (Zoe Kravitz) with actress Lisa Bonet.
The studio executives were lucky that “The Jeffersons” cast got along so well together. The cast worked together for many years and episodes and developed close relationships with each other. Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley became especially close as castmates and had little nicknames for each other (outside of “Weezy” for Isabel).
Isabel was frequently referred to as “The Queen” because of her elegant demeanor and Isabel would call Sherman “neck”.
The First Jefferson Appearance
Before the show even aired, the family made an appearance in “All in the Family.” Does it count as a crossover if it happened before the show was even on air?
The first member of the Jefferson family to appear on TV was the son, Lionel Jefferson. Lionel appeared on "All in the Family” and was a frequent visitor to the Bunker home. Louise Jefferson and George’s brother also appeared on at least one occasion on “All in the Family”.
Before he found fame as George Jefferson, Sherman Hemsley was a mailman in Philadelphia. He was hard-set on becoming an actor and decided that it was time to move out from Philadelphia.
Similar to Marla Gibbs, Hemsley held on to his mailing job, even after moving to New York, to make sure he had some financial security. Luckily for him, he finally found success after being cast on “The Jeffersons”.
A Unique Show
What made “The Jeffersons” so unique was also what made it a bit controversial for the time. The show featured an interracial couple, which was very significant for the time and also featured a blossoming love story between Lionel Jefferson and Willis’s daughter, Jenny.
Today, these show elements would probably be taken for granted but in earlier times, addressing these issues on-screen was truly groundbreaking.
A Simple Star
Today, we are used to seeing TV stars get pampered in their personal trailers. It seems like actors today barely need to lift a finger (at least in relation to their job).
Actor Franklin Cover (who played Tom Willis) wasn’t too proud or pretentious to take the bus to work on-set, which is exactly what he did. In fact, he didn’t even own a car or a home but instead rented an apartment.
Barely An On-Screen Son
This might be one of the biggest bombshells about “The Jeffersons.” Hemsley was only eleven years older than his on-screen son, Mike Evans! How? Well, it was something beyond the on-screen magic of makeup and costumes.
Evans simply looked younger (although maybe if the audience looked closely enough, they could see it) than his on-screen dad. Either way, the casting was strong enough to keep Lionel and George on set as father and son for many years.
Even More Unconventional
If you thought that “The Jeffersons'' was progressive and even controversial because of the relationships it featured, there’s even more. This show truly rocked the boat. Apparently, producer Norman Lear was known to create shows that got people talking, especially about particularly sensitive subjects. The show even featured an episode with a transgender character.
In the episode “Once a Friend”, George encounters a friend from his past who has undergone a transition from male to female.
Life After The Jeffersons
After his time on “The Jeffersons” ended, Mike Evans (who played Lionel) went on to work behind the scenes on the show “Good Times”. He was actually the writer and creator for a handful of seasons.
While he was gone from “The Jeffersons” actor Damon Evans replaced him as Lionel in seasons two, three, and four of the show. He later returned to reprise his role. We hope the viewers were not too confused.
The Apartment Exists
It is remarkable what TV (or movie) magic can bring to a set. But if you thought that the Jeffersons' apartment was just a well-crafted Hollywood movie set you should think again! The famous TV abode is actually located in Manhattan.
The building (which is still standing today) is referred to as “Park Lane.” It was built in the 1960s and is distinguished by round balconies on the edges of the structure. You can still visit it today.
For all of its popularity, “The Jeffersons” ended abruptly and without any series finale. The network simply decided to pull the long-running show from the air. Why was this? Sadly the show had dropped enough in the ratings that network executives were ready to pull the plug, and that’s just what they did.
The cancellation of the show may not have been that much of a surprise for executives but it certainly came as a shock to the cast.
Life After “The Jeffersons”
Fortunately for fans of “The Jeffersons”, they would still be able to catch a glimpse of George and Louise. The famous TV couple made cameo appearances on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and Marla Gibbs and Sherman Hemsley also appeared, even in more recent years, on “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne”.
Interestingly enough, “House of Payne” (like “The Jeffersons”) also became a long-standing TV show with a primarily black cast.
Actress Isabel Sanford found out about her show’s cancellation in a terribly informal way. But she went on to also make a name for herself, starring in shows like “South Beach”, “Hanging with Mr. Cooper”, “Living Single”, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, “The Young and the Restless” and even “The Simpsons”.
Altogether, she played the role of “Louise Jefferson” on four separate TV shows, including, of course, “The Jeffersons”.
A Very Special Award
Isabel Sanford wasn’t just Louise Sanford on “The Jeffersons.” she had been a Broadway actress for thirty years before giving up her career to raise a family.
After the death of her husband, she and her three children moved out to Hollywood and she resumed her acting career. The accomplished actress eventually went on to become the very first African-American woman to take home the Emmy award for “Best Actress in a Comedy” for her role as Louise on the show.
An Original Entrepreneur Story
Yet another aspect that made “The Jeffersons” unique was that it was an entrepreneurial story. George Jefferson wasn’t always so successful but he was patient, smart, and knew to recognize and act on a good opportunity.
The story goes that, after receiving a sizable amount of money from an insurance settlement following a car accident, he invested the money in a dry-cleaning store. From there, he used his blue-collar work ethic to build his business.
To his devastation, Sherman Hemsley said that he found out about the cancellation of “The Jeffersons” via a newspaper article. After “The Jeffersons”, Sherman Hemsley did not suffer from being out of work for long and he went on to appear in many other projects.
The mailman-turned-actor also appeared in TV series like “The Twilight Zone”, “Family Matters”, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, “Sister Sister” and “House of Payne” just to name a few.
Saved by the Audience
Actor Paul Benedict played neighbor Harry Bentley. He stood out on-screen because he had some disproportionate features. It turns out that he had a serious health problem and it was a studio audience member who spotted it. The audience member was a radiologist and sent a note to the actor to meet him in the lobby after.
He told Benedict that he most likely had acromegaly, an endocrine disorder. Benedict soon saw a doctor and received proper treatment for the condition.
The Last Episode
Because the cancellation of “The Jeffersons” came quickly and without any warning, the last episode for this beloved show had no solid ending.
The episode was far from a swan song and ended with no special significance or sentiment but was treated like any other episode (to the shock of both the cast and the audience). The final episode was called “Red Robins” and in it, George decided to lead a girl scout group.
A Famous Voice
Fans and even those who are not fans of “The Jeffersons” may be familiar with the opening song, “Movin’ on Up”. And if the voice of the singer sounded familiar, that’s because the song was performed by songstress Ja’net DuBois.
DuBois was also known for playing the character of Willona Woods on “Good Times” and reportedly, performed the show's theme song before even knowing what the show was even about.
Even Elvis Loved It
While many people love to associate Elvis Presley with his timeless music and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches - he had one secret you have to know about.
Now, we may not have any concrete evidence, but according to Elvis’s maid, the legendary performer was a big fan of “The Jeffersons”. The crooner also liked shows like “Happy Days”, “The Flip Wilson Show” and “Good Times”.
Marla Gibbs, who was originally given a small role, not only became so popular that she had to quit her day job, but she was also given her own spin-off series.
Gibbs starred in the show “Checking In” which centered on her Jeffersons character taking a job as an executive at a hotel. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after just four episodes. The actress then returned to the set of “The Jeffersons.”
Other Side Stories
George and Louise Jefferson had a relatively rich backstory, rising from humble beginnings to great economic success. But there were two other curious side stories, specifically about Louise’s siblings.
An unnamed brother of hers was referred to on “All in the Family” but was never mentioned during “The Jeffersons”. She also had an older sister who had run away from home after she learned she was pregnant. The sister then moved to France and became a singer.
A Customized Role
It’s always impressive when an actor truly becomes the character they are playing, especially if it’s a character so different from themselves. Sherman Hemsley actually didn't have to try that hard to become George Jefferson, and there's a reason for that.
Norman Lear had been eyeing Hemsley and wrote the role with him in mind. Given the eventual popularity of the show, Lear revealed that he had good instincts when it came to both casting and writing.
Rumor has it that the concept for “The Jeffersons” came from the Black Panther movement. Reportedly, the group had approached producer Norman Lear to share their dissatisfaction with how African-Americans were being portrayed on the show “Good Times”.
The Panthers expressed their desire to see more African Americans portrayed as successful and Lear took what they had to say to heart. From there, he began developing the backstory for “The Jeffersons”.
Rags to Riches
“The Jeffersons” is certainly considered a situation comedy series, and these don't usually come with complicated characters or storylines. But the Jefferson family had a rich backstory. George Jefferson was supposed to have come from a family of Alabama sharecroppers.
George originally worked as a janitor at an apartment and Louise worked as a housekeeper. Their journey was truly a rags to riches story that captivated audiences, along with the comedic moments.
Despite the positive aspects of bringing conversations about race, stereotypes, and equality to American homes, there was at least one aspect of “The Jeffersons” that actor Sherman Hemsley was not too keen on, and that was the rather prejudiced terms his character was supposed to say.
After the writers refused to stop putting certain words in the script, Hemsley resorted to mumbling the word so that takes with it won't be useable. It worked!
Sadly, during the course of the show, Zara Cully (who played “Olivia” or “Mother Jefferson”) passed away. She became very sick during the third season and could not participate in the show.
After being gone for most of the third season, she returned in the fourth season but unfortunately became sick again and passed away at the age of eighty-six. The writers then also wrote the character out of the show having mother Jefferson pass on as well.
It’s All In the Details
Eagle-eyed fans of “The Jeffersons” will notice many details throughout the shows, but even the top enthusiasts may have not noticed one recurrence that took place with each episode.
In the opening of each episode, viewers can see that the photo on the desk with the telephone has changed. Each time a different character would be featured (George, Lionel, Louise, and, of course, Mother Jefferson). Spotting this might be hard, but it's very rewarding.
A Successful Successor
Considered a spin-off of the show “All in the Family”, “The Jeffersons” accomplished something that rarely happens for spin-offs.
While “All in the Family” was quite successful in its own right with hundreds of episodes, “The Jeffersons” surpassed its parent show at a whopping two hundred and fifty-three episodes. And with a total of eleven seasons, the show also aired for a greater length than “All in the Family”.
Every character on “The Jeffersons” served a comedic or narrative purpose but not every actor’s name was shown in the credits. Ned Wertimer who played Ralph the doorman was seen in the opening of each episode, where the opening credits were also observed.
But ironically, although he was featured during the opening credits, Wertimer’s name was not in there because his role was considered too small and not regular enough to be given accreditation.
A TV Power Couple
George Jefferson and Louise Jefferson eventually became a TV power couple. The pair had been through major economic changes but managed to stay with each other through thick and thin.
Actors Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford were the only characters to appear in every single episode of “The Jeffersons”. One of the reasons they may have been so well-liked was because the couple had a humorous yet relatable relationship that was still grounded in family values.
An Easy Write Out
There are at least a couple of cast members of “The Jeffersons” who left the show for other projects. Along with Mike Evans (who played Lionel), Paul Benedict eventually moved on too. Benedict left in season eight to pursue other projects and the writers decided to make his exit story rather interesting.
The story went that Harry Bentley (who worked as a translator at the UN) was sent to Russia after an affair with a delegate’s wife.
She Had to Say Yes
Isabel Sanford was rumored to act like a diva on the set of the show. Whether she did act improperly or not, we will never know, but if she did, she had good reason to. She was forced to be a part of the show.
The writer informed her that her "All in the Family" character would be a part of the show, whether she liked it or not. Producers decided to write her off her original show, which left her no choice then to join "The Jeffersons."
The Plot Thickens
As you know, actor Mike Evans left "The Jeffersons" not once but twice, which is not something a lot of actors do. When he said goodbye for the second time, the writers decided to find a creative way to explain his absence.
The character was gone because of marital problems. Yes, writers had Lionel and Jenny separating. Later on, they wrote in a divorce.
A Tripple Crossover
While the show never got to have an appropriate ending, its characters were a part of an epic ending of a different popular show. "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" had an ambitious final episode, which featured characters from both "The Jeffressons" and "Diff'rent Strokes."
The cleverly written episode had George purchasing the Bel-Air house from Phil, while the Drummond family from "Diff'rent Strokes" was trying to acquire it.
Asking For More
One of the most fascinating aspects of TV is hearing about the salary the actors make. It usually starts out small, but if the show is successful, then a raise ensues. This wasn't the case for Mike Evans who had to go to extreme lengths to try and get one.
The story goes that the actor had to confront Norman Lear during a Christmas party. He told him he'd quit if he didn't get more. The actor was then fired.
The Best Dad
George Jefferson was a beloved character that people still remember to this day. One proof of that is that the fictional dad made it into a TV Guide's list in 2004. The list ranked the best dads seen on TV. George won the title of the 44th best dad on TV.
The list was titled "50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time" and appeared on TV'guide's June 20th, 2004 issue).
The Season that Never Happened
Before they knew there wouldn't be a 12th season, writers had creative plans for it. As they knew ratings were not great, they wanted to take the show in a different direction. The plan was to have Mike Evans' character Lionel, return for the new season, despite the fact he divorced Jenny.
Sadly, this plotline never got to see the light of day and there's no way of knowing if it would have helped the show or not.
Not everyone gets to live to old age, but for those who do, it is truly a blessing. The show's eldest actor, Marla Gibbs, actually turned 90 years old in 2021.
She is the only person out of the entire show's cast that has reached such an age (we hope other actors will follow!) and we are delighted she is still here with us. Actors Jay Hammer, Damon Evans, and Berlinda Tolbert still have at least a decade before they'll catch up with her.
Evans Hated It
When we love a show, we want to imagine the actors enjoyed it as much as we did. This wasn't the case for actor Damon Evans who left the series to get back to his theatre career. In interviews he has given later, he confessed that he did not like working on the show.
He wasn't really into playing a sitcom character, and many times he would just not show up on set.