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October 8, 2015

Blast from the Past: The Jeffersons

by Kim Voynar, posted Feb 11th 2006 10:08AM

As we reported yesterday, Franklin Cover, best known as dorky white guy Tom Willis on The Jeffersons in the 1970s, passed away. His death made me ruminate on The Jeffersons, which was a mainstay of my childhood. Good old George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley, the little man with big ideas, who grew to see race issues in a different light through his relationship with interracial couple Tom and Helen Willis. Helen was played by Roxie Roker, mother of rocker Lenny Kravitz, and the character of Tom was supposedly based on her real-life white husband (an interesting tale related to me by Roker's nephew several years ago).

George and wife Lousie (Weezie), played by the late Isabel Sanford, were always struggling with issues of equality in their household, not to mention issues caused by sweet-faced-but-evil Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully) but Weezie didn't take any guff from her man, and neither did their maid, Florence (the best character in the show, played with deadpan perfection by Marla Gibbs). What made The Jeffersons great was the way it dealt with issues of race, class, and equality with sharp-witted humor; George was never really quite as bad a guy, at heart, as much as he might have seemed to be at times. Through his friendship with Tom Willis and bumbling Brit neighbor Bentley (Paul Benedict), and eventually through son Lionel's marriage to mixed race Jenny, daughter of Helen and Tom, George learned to face his own prejudices, even as he dealt with the realities of racism himself, which didn't go away when he moved on up to that deeeeeluxe apartment in the sky.

But here's one thing that I find disturbing: how is it possible that in all these years, I've never realized there were TWO actors playing Lionel? Mike Evans played Lionel in 1975; his job duties as creator of Good Times forced him to leave the show, and he was replaced by Damon Evans, who played the part from 1975-1978. Mike Evans took the role back again from 1979-81. Am I the only person on the planet who didn't know there were two Lionels? I knew there were two Beckys on Roseanne, and two Masons on Santa Barbara (sorry, but Terry Lester just never did it for me as Mason Capwell #2), but two Lionels? Wow.

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Toby OB

Technically, there were two Tom Willises as well. In the 'All In The Family' episode in which Archie and Edith went to the wedding for Lionel and Jennie, which served to launch 'The Jeffersons' into their own show, Tom was played by Charles Aidman.

I'll always remember Aidman best for playing Jeremy Pike on 'The Wild, Wild West'.

February 12 2006 at 2:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They did a good job at showing both sides of bigots. I remember when Louises cousin Henry bought the house from them, Henry and Archie did not care for each other much, mainly due to race, but both flipped out when a latino family was going to buy the house across the street.

February 11 2006 at 11:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hank Shiffman

I'm guessing you just don't *remember* the Lionel swap. Like the two Darrens on Bewitched, the change was pretty obvious. Especially since Mike Evans started playing Lionel back on All In The Family. I even remember some (entertainment) news coverage of the change at the time, so it wasn't exactly a secret at the time.

February 11 2006 at 11:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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