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13 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘The Jeffersons’

“We’re moving on up, to the East side . . .” The first words in The Jeffersons’ popular theme song got fans singing along for eleven seasons of socially edgy hilarity. Viewers tuned in for the latest from the Jefferson family, their friends, neighbors, and employees, that made the sitcom great. The no-holds-barred show dealt with touchy subjects like racism and classism in ways that brought laughter instead of rage, and the characters delivered punch lines with the effectiveness of knockout blows. Want to know some behind-the-scenes info about this classic sitcom? Read on!

1. All About “Weezy”

Somewhere in Philadelphia, a woman named Louise was probably blushing each time The Jeffersons aired. Why? Well, “Louise” was also the name of a girl Hemsley had a crush on as a young man growing up in Philadelphia, who he fondly nicknamed “Weezy.” Starting to see where this is going? Early in the series, Hemsley blurted out Weezy in reference to Louise, a happy accident that became his TV-wife’s nickname throughout the show’s run.

George and Weezy Jefferson

2. East Side Residents Were Displeased

A high-rise at 185 East 85th Street was the focal point where the Jefferson family lived in luxurious bliss after they moved from the house next door to Archie Bunker. However, residents of the deluxe Manhattan, New York condominium building Park Lane Tower were far from pleased that their building was referred to as “The Jefferson Building.”

Jefferson building

3. A First For TV’s Interracial Marriages

Viewers of prime time television probably had a bit of a shock when they were introduced to “Tom and Helen Willis,” played by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker respectively. It was the first time an interracial marriage was shown on prime time, and kept up with the show’s unapologetic and daring tone.

Tom and Helen Willis on the Jeffersons
the willis kiss on the jeffersons

4. Hemsley Was Always Supposed To Be “George Jefferson”

Sometimes show creators and producers peg an actor for a role and don’t ever let go of that bone. That was the case with Sherman Hemsley, who producer Norman Lear always saw as “George Jefferson.” However, the actor was was working on Broadway in Purlie and didn’t want to to break his contract. To ride out the wave until Hemsley was available to take the role, Lear cast Mel Stewart as a sort of placeholder. He wasn’t fired after Hemsley signed on, though. Stewart later assumed the role of George’s brother “Henry Jefferson.”

Mel Stewart

5. Isabel Sanford’s Hubby Surprise

They say opposites attract and in television this can also be true. For Isabel Sanford, who played “Louise ‘Weezy’ Mills-Jefferson” George’s wife, this was definitely the case. Sanford was shocked when she met Hemsley, who was not only twenty-one years her junior, but a “little man who she could squash like a bug.” The actress didn’t have much faith in the pairing, but it turned out they were meant to be happily TV married as years later, the duo landed numerous TV show and commercial jobs as a couple.

George and Louise Jefferson

6. Sanford’s “Our Way Or The Highway” Moment

The Jeffersons was a spin-off of All In The Family, a show that revolved around the fictional Bunker family—the Jeffersons’ neighbors before George Jefferson’s insurance settlement made him rich. Isabel Sanford was comfortable in the popular series and while The Jeffersons was being pitched, was uneasy about leaving the popular show for an unproven series. However, it was made clear that should she not get with the program, she’d simply be written out of the new series if it was picked up. Talk about an ultimatum!

Sanford, Hemsley and Evans

7. It’s Raining Emmy Nominations

During its 11-season run, The Jeffersons’ cast members amassed thirteen Emmy Award nominations. In 1981, Isabel Sanford became the second African-American woman to win an Emmy, and she was nominated as Best Actress from 1979 to 1985. Sherman Hemsley received a Best Actor Emmy nomination in 1984.

The Jeffersons Emmy

8. All “Neck” And “The Queen”

Nicknames can become common among cast-mates and The Jeffersons’ team had a couple of their own. Isabel Sanford referred to her TV-husband Hemsley as “Neck” because she felt he was “all neck” and scrawny at 135 pounds. Meanwhile, most of the cast declared Sanford “The Queen,” because of her elegant poise and the regal way she carried herself.

George and Louise Jefferson

9. Marla Gibbs Kept Her Day Job

“Not unless you plan to pay me for it,” was Marla Gibbs’ reply to producers asking her to quit her day job at United Airlines, in order to work on the series full-time. Gibbs played “Florence” the no-nonsense, outspoken maid of the Jefferson family. When she landed the role, and two years following that, Gibbs still had her longtime reservation agent job. Initially Florence was not meant to be a recurring character, but the audience’s response made that happen. When producers discovered Gibbs was still commuting daily between her airline job and the studio, they coughed up a full-time contract to ensure they kept the actress happy.

Florence on The Jeffersons
Marla Gibbs

10. Franklin Cover Led Two Lives

Not only did Franklin Cover take the bus to the studio each morning, but on weekends he flew from Los Angeles back home to New York City to be with his wife and kids. Cover did this bi-costal commute during the filming season, living in an apartment in LA while in that city.

Franklin Cover on The Jeffersons

11. The Second Lionel Regrets Taking the Role

The Jeffersons’ son Lionel was originally played by Mike Evans but then was replaced by Damon Evans (no relation) for four years before Mike returned to the roll. When interviewed, Damon Evans doesn’t talk very highly of his time on the top ten sitcom. “I uprooted myself from a role as a classical music student and was thrust in the public’s eye overnight. Talk about stress and adjustment issues…Losing my anonymity at such a young age was devastating to me.” he said.

Damon Evans
Mike Evans

12. Paul Benedict Was Diagnosed by an Audience Member

The Jeffersons’ neighbor Harry Bentley was played by actor Paul Benedict. He was known for having some unusual features such as a large nose nose, protruding jaw and oversized hands and feet. No doctor had been able to diagnose him, but one day when he was acting in a play, an usher passed him a note from an audience member who was a radiologist. When they met in the lobby after the performance, the actor was told he had the symptoms of acromegaly, a glandular disorder. After this meeting, Benedict had a minor surgical procedure that helped his excruciating headaches and curtailed the condition from progressing further. However, his unusual look probably helped him land some character roles.

Paul Benedict Was Diagnosed by an Audience Member

13. Sherman Hemsley And The Cold Cancellation

In 1985 The Jeffersons came to an abrupt end and even major stars were left in the dark. It had fallen out of the top-30 bracket in the rankings, and though it was a fan favorite, the series’ fate was sealed. Sherman Hemsley, who played patriarch of the family and regular upstart “George Jefferson,” shared that he found out about the cancellation from the newspaper. No news is good news? Not in this case.

Sherman Hemsley
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