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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Jeffersons - Finally Gettin' A Piece Of The Pie

There are some days in which I really miss being a child.

Back when I was five or six years old, there were only twelve channels on television to choose from. Yes, I know by then cable television was around, but my family wasn't able to afford it until the early 1990s. Prior to that, I know exactly what the channels were that we had to watch at that time. And what's scarier is that I can tell you what channel corresponded with each station. And, that I still REMEMBER them twenty years later!

Back in 198-whatever, the channels we had to watch were the following.

02 – TVOntario (Toronto)
03 – Global Television (Toronto)
04 – CBC Television (Ottawa)
05 – CBS Television (Detroit)
06 – NBC Television (Detroit)
07 – CBS Television (Watertown)
08 – PBS Television (Watertown)
09 – CBC Television French Language (Montreal)
10 – Cable 10 (Brockville)
11 – CKWS-TV (Kingston)
12 – ABC Television (Detroit)
13 – CTV Television (Ottawa)

(Yes, you're reading this correctly...we did have two CBS affiliates.)

Actually, with cable television, the line-up didn't really change that much. Channel 5 became CFMT-TV, which is now called OMNI1. Channel 6 moved to Channel 15, and Channel 12 moved to Channel 19.

Why am I bringing this up though? It's partially related to today's blog post.

Of all the channels that we had on basic cable, I'd have to say that I watched Channel 6 (WDIV-TV) the most. That would be NBC for all of you keeping score at home. I know that these days, NBC seems to be struggling with keeping an audience, but back in those days, it really was Must See TV. Most of the cartoons that I watched as a young boy on Saturday mornings happened to be on NBC, and back in the 1980s, NBC had wonderful sitcoms such as The Hogan Family, The Cosby Show, ALF, The Facts Of Life, and The Golden Girls.

My favourite time to watch our NBC affiliate though was immediately after school let out for the day. You see, back in the 1980s before daytime talk shows and the Today Show expanded into the afternoon, the daytime block was filled with soap operas as well as affiliate time. And, after Another World, there would be an hour of programming dedicated to classic sitcoms from years gone by. From 3-4pm, I'd watch these classic shows and love them. The first show was “Gimme A Break!”, which aired from 3-3:30.

And from 3:30-4, this show aired.

Today, we're going to take a look back on the classic sitcom “The Jeffersons”. Although I watched the program on an NBC affiliate, the program originated on CBS. It ran from January 18, 1975 until June 25, 1985. The fact that the show ran for eleven seasons was a milestone in itself (especially since the program it spun off from, “All in the Family” ran two seasons shorter). But an even bigger milestone? It remains the longest running sitcom featuring a predominately African-American cast ever, more than 25 years after airing its final episode. And, just as the theme song says, the entire premise of the series involves a couple moving on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky, and the trials and tribulations surrounding life in a high-rise.

Obviously, there's a reason why I chose to spotlight “The Jeffersons” in today's blog entry. Three days ago, on July 24, we lost Sherman Hemsley. The actor, who portrayed George Jefferson passed away of natural causes at the age of 74.

Hemsley enjoyed a long career in the field of entertainment in a career that spanned a little over four decades. His first acting job was on the stage. In 1970, he starred at the character Gitlow in the Broadway play “Purlie”. Shortly after that, he moved from Philadelphia to New York to study with Lloyd Richards at the Negro Ensemble Company. He later joined Vinnette Carroll's Urban Arts Company where he acted in such productions as “Old Judge Mose is Dead”, “Croesus”, and “The Witch”. Hemsley seemed to really embrace the theatre as that was all that he exclusively did between 1970 and 1972.

And then Norman Lear came into Hemsley's life, and offered him a job. Lear was in the process of casting for his new television series “All in the Family”, and he believed that Hemsley was perfect for the role of George Jefferson, the neighbour of Archie and Edith Bunker. Hemsley was torn. He loved doing theatre and didn't want to give it up, but at the same time the television role intrigued him. Lear told him that he would hold the role open for him, and in 1973, Hemsley joined the cast of “All in the Family”, and two years later, was spun off into “The Jeffersons”.

Of course, George Jefferson would always be Sherman Hemsley's most famous role, but it wasn't the only sitcom role he would take on. From 1986-1991, he assumed the role of Deacon Frye on the NBC sitcom, “Amen”, and from 1991-1994, he took on voice acting as he provided the voice for B.P. Richfield on the television show “Dinosaurs!”. He also brought out his George Jefferson persona in various places along with his co-star Isabel Sanford (who played his wife Louise “Weezie” Jefferson). They starred in an episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, they both appeared on “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”, and they even appeared together in a Denny's commercial!

Really, the whole working relationship between Sherman and Isabel was one of the best in the business. They really did share some amazing chemistry together. But did you know there was a 21-year age difference between Isabel and Sherman? Isabel was born in 1917, Sherman was born in 1938! I honestly had no idea that there was that wide a gap between Sanford and Hemsley. When I first found out, I was blown away...partly because in my eyes, George Jefferson looked older than Weezie!

And, if you thought that piece of trivia was shocking, I have more information and trivia about the show itself. Consider it your behind the scenes scoop of “The Jeffersons”.

1 – If you take a look at the photograph that happens to be sitting next to the telephone in the Jefferson's apartment, it changes every episode.

2 – If you've ever wondered where the building that is featured in the opening credits of the intro is found, it is located at 185 E. 85th Street in Manhattan.

3 – The name of the apartment building that the Jeffersons live in is Colby East, and the Jeffersons live on the 12th floor.

4 – Zara Cully played the role of Mother Jefferson until the 1977-78 season. When she passed away on February 28, 1978, the character of Mother Jefferson was killed off as well.

5 – Ja'net Dubois sang the theme song “Movin' On Up”. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because at the time she sang the theme song for “The Jeffersons”, she herself was one of the cast members of another sitcom, “Good Times”.

6 – Mike Evans played the role of Lionel Jefferson, the son of George and Weezie. In real life, he was only eleven years younger than Sherman Hemsley!

7 – Mike Evans played the role of Lionel Jefferson off and on during the series eleven year run. He left the program to work as a writer and producer for “Good Times”. Upon the show's finale in 1979, he returned to “The Jeffersons”. Sadly, Mike Evans passed away in 2006 from throat cancer at the age of 57.

8 – In the eleven seasons that “The Jeffersons” were on the air, they occupied a grand total of fifteen different time slots!

9 – “The Jeffersons” ended up spending quite a bit of time in the Top 10 list of the Neilsen ratings. It was in the Top 10 during its first season, and stayed in the Top 10 between 1979 and 1982.

10 – When the news was announced that George and Weezie would get a spinoff from “All in the Family”, Isabel Sanford was opposed. She was very happy on the set of “All in the Family” and didn't want to leave. But when informed that the possibility of her being recast was open if she refused, Sanford agreed to join “The Jeffersons”.

11 – The show was known for some rather controversial moments. In the earliest seasons, the characters often said the “N” word. There were episodes on such subjects as racism, suicide, and gun control. And the characters of Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker) were television's first black/white interracial couple.

12 – Speaking of Tom and Helen Willis, would you believe that there were CBS executives who lobbied to edit out an onscreen kiss between the two? Fred Silverman managed to leave the kiss intact in the show, but boy, have times changed since the late 1970s!

13 – There were 253 episodes filmed of “The Jeffersons”. Sherman Hemsley was the only actor to appear in all 253 episodes.

14 – The character of Florence (Marla Gibbs) was originally intended to be a recurring character, but based on fan reaction, the character became so popular, Gibbs was offered a contract role soon after.

15 – Marla Gibbs was herself given a spinoff series from “The Jeffersons”, entitled “Checking In”. She left the series in a similar fashion to that of Charlotte Rae (who left Diff'rent Strokes to join the cast of “The Facts of Life”) in that if the show failed, she could come back to the series. Unlike Charlotte Rae's situation, “Checking In” checked out, and Gibbs returned to “The Jeffersons” shortly afterwards.

16 – Roxie Roker had a striking similarity to the character she played. Turns out Roxie's real-life husband was Caucasian, and when she was asked if she would have a problem with it, all she had to do was show producers a picture of her husband. That answered their questions right then and there!

17 – The role of Lionel Jefferson was played by two different actors. When Mike Evans left the series after the first season, an actor named Damon Evans (no relation) was brought in for seasons 2-4.

18 – The show boasted some serious guest star power. Appearing in small episodic roles in the series were Gary Coleman, Sammy Davis Jr, Louis Gossett Jr, Reggie Jackson, Gladys Knight, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Jaleel White, and Billy Dee Williams.

19 – With Hemsley's death in July 2012, the only surviving cast members of the series are Marla Gibbs, Damon Evans, Berlinda Tolbert (Jenny Willis-Jefferson), and Jay Hammer (Alan Willis). Isobel Sanford passed away in July 2004, Mike Evans in December 2006, Zara Cully in February 1978, Franklin Cover in February 2006, Roxie Roker in December 1995, and Paul Benedict in December 2008.

20 – The show never did receive a proper series finale. In fact, when the show was finally cancelled in June 1985, the cast was not informed until after the episode “Red Robin” aired (which ended up being the last episode). Sherman Hemsley recalled that he didn't know the show had not been picked up for the 1985/86 season until he read it in the newspaper! That's pretty bad on CBS' part, wouldn't you say?

However, despite the way the show ended, it did provide lots of laughs to people of all backgrounds and skin colours, and it made Sherman Hemsley a bright star in the world of entertainment.

A star that will forever shine on after his death.

Sherman Hemsley

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