The Jeffersons take ‘a piece of the pie’
“Moving on up to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky — Movin’ on up to the East Side, finally got a piece of the pie.”
The opening theme song of The Jeffersons” (CBS, Saturday nights) is a poignant reminder that George and Louise Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford) and their son Lionel (Mike Evans) once lived in a blue-collar neighborhood, where they were next-door neighbors of the Archie Bunkers.
In the “All in the Family” spinoff series, the Jeffersons now have a successful chain of dry cleaning stores, and are making it with Manhattan’s upper-middle-class, where “fish don’t fry in the kitchen, beans don’t burn on the grill.”
“The Jeffersons,” a brainchild of Norman Lear, is the third black show in the Lear stable of six shows now on the air. It is also the highest on the socio-economic ladder, along with “Maude,” the other upper-middle class family spinoff of “All in the Family.” The Bunkers and the black Evans family of “Good Times” are both on the lower-middle-income level.
“Sanford and Son,” who are junk dealers, and the characters in “Hot l Baltimore” are comparatively lower class economically. Sandwiched between “All in the Family” as lead-in and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” both of which are top-rated shows, “The Jeffersons” has ranged from fourth to ninth place in the Nielsens since its Jan. 18 premiere.
The CBS network has so much faith in its power as a ratings grabber that it plans to let “The Jeffersons” take over the old Archie Bunker neighborhood in the fall and shuffle “All in the Family” to Monday nights
If “The Jeffersons” holds up as a lead-in show, the maneuver will give CBS a second launching pad for new series, one at each end of the week. As the song says: “Now we’re up in the big time, getting our turn at bat.”
Lear has consistently enveloped his shows with controversy by tangling with such topics as menopause, abortion, breast cancer and economic inflation. “The Jeffersons” has caused no such furor. As one network spokesman said, “They’ve (hot topics) all been done before.”
However, one has not. An interracial marriage on “The Jeffersons” between a white man and a black woman (Tom and Helen Willis, played by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker) has caused not a stir.
“We got only one letter so far on the Willises,” Sherman Hemsley said. “It says we’re trying to promote miscegenation.” Perhaps it is a sign of the times.
Just seven years ago, when Petula Clark touched Harry Belafonte’s arm on her TV special, the “racial incident” met with objection from the sponsor and some stations.
In a recent episode of “The Jeffersons,” when the Willises made up after an argument instigated by George Jefferson, they embraced and kissed passionately — and caused no comment.
The comedy focuses mainly on the problems of the nouveau riche, black style, George Jefferson who forces a maid on his wife, who doesn’t want one; he won’t let the bored Louise get a job; he finds tenant protest meetings beneath his dignity, and his one-upmanship grates on the neighbors.
At first, he came on a little strong. “In the first couple of shows, I can see people not liking me. There were comments about me yelling so much at my wife,” Hemsley says. “As we progress, we see the human warps. He’s (George) a person with a whole lot of hangups, fighting himself.
“I know people like this. I get most of my things from my friends — the walk from one, the laugh from another — the friends that I grew up with and some I know now. And I know what makes me function, so I can understand how other people function; the laws are uniform.”
Jeffersons’ Hemsley wants stardom for what it helps him do — for others
“The Jeffersons” is another hit from Norman Lear, and it has made stars out of its leading players — including Sherman Hemsley, who plays George Jefferson.
A lot of people are happy to see Hemsley make it, because he’s one of those rare people who wants to be a star for what stardom will enable him to do for others.
“I’m glad for my success.” he says, “not for what it will buy me, but for what it will let me do for other people. I want to help my mother and do things for lots of my old friends.”
He has lots of old friends. Over the years, like all of us, he’s made them but he doesn’t forget them. He even still keeps in touch with the friends he made in grade school back in Philadelphia, and with the men he worked with in the Philadelphia and New York post offices.
He comes by his altruism naturally. He remembers his grandmother back in Philadelphia helping others. She died when he was 14, but he remembers her clearly.
“She was so full of love,” he says. “She used to take people in from off the street and feed them and let them stay. I used to say, ‘Why do you do that?’ and she would say, ‘Because they need something.’”
The Jeffersons: Love and friendship
He says that since then, the most important things in his life have been love and friendship. The hit CBS show is enabling him to practice love and friendship on a larger scale than ever before.
Hemsley grew up wanting to be an actor. But for a black boy at that time, “it seemed like just a foolish dream.” He did as much acting as he could as a schoolboy, but that’s all at the time.
He went to work in the Philadelphia Post Office. He took the midnight shift so he could act too, and did many plays in his hometown. Robert Hooks of New York’s Negro Ensemble Theater saw him and invited him to New York.
Hemsley made the switch, but conservatively got a transfer from the Philadelphia to the New York Post Office just in case. After a year, the acting had become more important than lugging sacks of mail, and he quit.
He came west with “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.” The show closed in San Francisco. He called Lear from there, and the casting director of the Lear operation said they’d been trying to find him. They had seen him on Broadway in “Purlie,” and wanted him to play Jefferson in “All in the Family.” So he had a job.
He did “All in the Family” until Lear decided to spin-off another series, and “The Jeffersons” was born.
Hemsley says his new show differs from the other black TV families, “That’s My Mama” and “Good Times,” in that The Jeffersons have more money. They are different people, and that makes a different show.
The Jeffersons Theme song and opening credits “Movin’ On Up”
Here, Sherman Hemsley talks about his experience on The Jeffersons in this interview from August 2003.