15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Jeffersons’

Or, according to actor Mike Evans, ‘Lionel’s Show’
15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Jeffersons’

Developed by Norman Lear, The Jeffersons managed to make sitcom history with practically every other episode. Starting off as the neighbors of the Bunkers in All in the Family, 1975 saw the Jefferson family moving from their working-class Queens neighborhood to “a deluxe apartment in the sky” in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, getting their own show, and giving us one of the most iconic themes in TV history.

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The show’s core was built around representing and showcasing the Black experience on American television. Writer and producer Jay Moriarty explained it perfectly when he noted that he dedicated his book, Honky in the House: Writing & Producing The Jeffersons, to “the young Black man who spoke to my all-white high school class and mentioned that growing up in the 1950s, the only time he saw people who looked like him on TV was when he’d see Tarzan being chased by natives in the jungle. He said he’d be yelling, ‘Look out, Tarzan, they’re right behind you!’ When he should’ve been yelling, ‘Get that honky!’ The very subtext or theme of The Jeffersons, through its then record-setting 11-season run, was simple: Black people are people too. Another way of stating the simple truth that Black Lives Matter.”

Gathered below is a list of trivia about the show that didn’t shy away from taking on real-world issues, one joke at a time...

It Was the First TV Show in History to Feature a Married Black and White Couple

Not only was the show one of the longest-running sitcoms to feature a predominantly Black cast, but it also broke ground by having a prosperous Black family at the center of it all. And while I Love Lucy was the first to ever feature an interracial marriageThe Jeffersons saw a sitcom’s first Black and white married couple in Helen Willis (Roxie Roker) and Thomas Willis (Franklin Cover).

An Actress on Another Norman Lear Show Wrote and Performed the Theme Song

Ja’Net DuBois, who played Willona Woods on Good Times, ended up co-writing and performing The Jefferson’s iconic theme song, “Movin’ on Up.” DuBois’ daughter, Kesha Gupta-Fields, once explained that her mom wrote the song as a promise to her own mother — “that when she obtained a certain level of stardom, that her dream was to essentially have her mom live in a deluxe apartment. That was written and sung as a gift to her mother, Lilian DuBois.”

There Are 35 Backup Singers in the Theme Song

The backup vocals on “Movin’ on Up” were provided by a 35-member gospel choir. The song also features veteran backup artist Oren Waters singing along to DuBois during the “now we up in the big leagues” lyrics. Waters has accompanied singers like Santana, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston, and he’s featured on Michael Jackson’s iconic album, Thriller.

The Black Panthers Helped Create the Concept of the Show

In his autobiography, Lear wrote about how Good Times and the Black Panther Party contributed to him creating The Jeffersons. He recalled that three members of the political organization came to his office to complain about the way Black folks were portrayed in Good Times and on television in general, reportedly saying, “Every time you see a Black man on the tube, he is dirt poor, wears shit clothes, can’t afford nothing. That’s bullshit.” 

And that’s how the Jefferson family found themselves in fancy Manhattan, drinking scotch and winning awards.

Isabel Sanford Modeled Louise Jefferson After Herself

The actress once said that she had many discussions with John Rich (director of All in the Family) about her character Louise, the wife of George. “I said, you know, I wouldn’t come running in asking George how was his day,” Sanford explained. “Black women don’t do that.” She also said that Weezy wouldn’t run into the kitchen to get George his dinner — “we don’t do that” — and that she approached the character from her own experience with her husband.

Lear Broke Ground Featuring Transgender Characters in His Sitcoms

The character of Beverly LaSalle in Lear’s All in the Family was the first gender-non-conforming character in sitcom history. Lear’s other sitcom, All That Glitters, saw TV’s first regular transgender character, Linda Murkland. In The Jeffersons’ episode, “Once a Friend,” George gets a visit from an old navy pal, who has since had gender reassignment surgery and is now living her truth as Edie, a woman. The story managed to sincerely talk about and embrace the social politics of gender identity.

Marla Gibbs Worked at an Airline for Two Years While Doing the Show

The actress who played the wonderful housekeeper, Florence Johnston, was working at United Airlines as a reservation agent when she got the part in the hit series. “And I stayed with (the airline) an additional two years,” she told The Washington Post. “I was doing both things. Because in my world, a bird in the hand is worth twenty in the bush, so I wasn’t ready to give up the airline yet. Besides, I had unlimited passes.” 

Gibbs also revealed that Florence was only supposed to be a one-time guest appearance.

George Jefferrson Has an Elaborate Backstory

Few sitcom characters have detailed backstories like that of George Jefferson, the thriving small business owner who loves money and hates rich people. For one, the man comes from a family of Alabama sharecroppers, which already explains his general economic attitude. At one point, while married to Louise, he worked as a janitor in a big apartment building, and he would later turn an insurance settlement into his lucrative dry-cleaning business.

Roxie Roker Is Lenny Kravitz’s Mom

The scene-stealing actress gave birth to the rock legend, and following her passing, Kravitz said that his daughter, Zoë Kravitz, reminds him of his late mother. When Zoë hosted Saturday Night Live in 2022, Lenny wrote on Instagram: “To see you shine in the same building where your grandparents met and worked was surreal” — referring to Roker and her husband, Sy Kravitz, working together at NBC News before she became a Jeffersons star.

CBS Canceled the Show Without Informing Any of the Cast

In 1985, two months before the show’s eventual final episode aired, CBS canceled The Jeffersons, and the cast members were as surprised to learn about it as audiences were. Hemsley said they were all shocked by the news, with him only learning about it through the newspapers. Sanford found out about the cancelation when her cousin phoned her about the news, while Cover said he found out while watching Entertainment Tonight.

The Show Perfectly Balanced Comedy With Drama

Like All in the Family, The Jeffersons was written in a way that would have viewers laughing one minute and getting punched in the feels the next. The hard-hitting episode “Sorry, Wrong Meeting” is a powerful example of this as we see George unknowingly attend a KKK meeting following a string of break-ins in the apartment building, only to end up saving a Klan member’s life — much to said horrid member’s disgust.

Jay Moriarty Disagrees with Folks Calling George Jefferson the ‘Black Archie Bunker’

“Whenever I hear or read George Jefferson described as a ‘Black Archie Bunker,’ I cringe at the oversimplification,” Moriarty once said. “Sure, you could call each a bigot. But where Archie’s bigotry is pure prejudice, George’s bigotry is a reaction to prejudice. George doesn’t hate white people just because of the color of their skin. He hates that they kidnapped, raped, enslaved and lynched his ancestors.”

Mike Evans Wanted to Be the Star of the Show

Mike Evans (who played George’s son, Lionel) not only co-created Good Times but was also the first Jefferson to be introduced in All in the Family. According to folks who worked with Evans, all of this made him feel like The Jeffersons was his show. He reportedly said as much to Lear at a Christmas party, lamenting the fact that Hemsley and Sanford were getting all the limelight “on my show.” Evans threatened to leave if Lear didn’t give his character more screen time, but Lear didn’t budge, and Evans was replaced by Damon Evans until the actor returned again in 1979.

Only One Cast Member Ever Won an Emmy

Even though the show was wildly popular and reached number three on the Nielsen ratings, Sanford was the only cast member to win an Emmy (becoming the first Black actress to win Best Actress in a Comedy Series), and the show itself only won an Emmy for editing. Hemsley once shared his theory on why The Jeffersons was largely overlooked, sharing, “There were a lot of big-name people on shows then — Donny and Marie, Sonny and Cher — and we were unknowns. We were a show that beat everybody out, and I don’t think they appreciated it too much.”

Hemsley Brought a Bit of Philadelphia to His Famous Dance

Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Hemsley said he added some Philly flavor to his character. “That dance I do (as George Jefferson), it’s the Philly Slop,” he told Philadelphia Daily News in an interview.

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