The Only Major Actors Still Alive From The Jeffersons

"All in the Family" might've been Norman Lear's finest half-hour as a sitcom producer, but I'm not sure he ever put a funnier show on the airwaves than "The Jeffersons." For 11 seasons, Sherman Hemsley's dry-cleaning magnate George Jefferson and Isabel Sanford's good-hearted Louise "Weezy" Jefferson led a stellar cast that delivered edgy-for-network-television laughs revolving around race, class, gender, and whatever happened to be grinding the hot-headed George's gears that particular week. It was the African-American answer to "All in the Family" (on which the characters of George and Weezy originated), and might actually be more shocking today for its fearless deployment of the n-word (particularly early in the series' run).

And if you're making a list of the most memorable theme songs in television history, "The Jeffersons" better be in the top five. Anyone who grew up watching the show in prime time or via syndication should be able to sing the opening song with word-for-word accuracy.

"The Jeffersons" premiered on January 18, 1975, and concluded its run on July 2, 1985, so it's not too surprising that, 40 years later, most of the cast members have moved on up to deluxe accommodations in the great beyond. Life is a little less joyous (and certainly less raucous) without Helmsley, Sanford, Roxie Roker, Franklin Cover, Zara Cully, Mike Evans, and Paul Benedict exchanging zingers in and around the luxurious confines of Colby East. But some of the folks who sparred with George and sympathized with Weezy are still with us. Let's celebrate these actors while we're still fortunate enough to have them around!

Damon Evans

Mike Evans (no relation) originated the role of Lionel Jefferson, son of George and Weezy, on "All in the Family," and played the character during the first season of the show. When Mike demanded more screen time for Lionel, Lear replaced him with Damon Evans, who stuck with the character until Lionel was written out of the show before the fifth season. (Lionel was, quite confusingly, brought back for season 6 with Mike once again in the role.)

Damon was terrific during his three seasons as Lionel, and turned in a fine performance as author Alex Haley on "Roots: The Next Generations" in 1979. He only appeared in a couple of films (including Bob Clark's 1985 pay-cable mainstay "Turk 182"), but found success on stage as Sportin' Life in the Trevor Nunn-directed production of George Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess." He turned 75 last November, so here's hoping Mr. Evans is enjoying his septuagenarian years!

Berlinda Tolbert

While Mike Evans and Damon Evans shared the role of Lionel, the part of Jenny Willis Jefferson, daughter of the interracial couple Tom Willis (Franklin Cover) and Helen Willis (Roxide Roker), belonged to Belinda Tolbert for all 11 seasons of the series. Jenny and Lionel got hitched during the second season, but their marriage got rocky over the years, leading to a divorce at the end of the eighth season. (Tolbert stuck with the show as a recurring character until the series finale.)

Tolbert worked steadily on television after "The Jeffersons" ended, appearing on series as varied as "Airwolf," "Home Improvement," and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." As for film, she made her uncredited film debut in "Airport 1975," and has a blink-and-miss-it cameo in "Goodfellas." Her most memorable big-screen performance arrived in 1989 when she played Richard Pryor's very loving wife in "Harlem Nights" (the film that began and ended Eddie Murphy's directing career). Tolbert, who turned 74 last year, retired from the industry in the late 2000s to take care of her aging parents.

Jay Hammer

When Lear wrote Lionel out of the series for its fifth season, someone had to step up and absorb some of George's invective. That person was Jay Hammer, who played Allan Willis, the son of, as George often called them, "zebras" Tom and Helen Willis. If you primarily watched the series in syndication, the Allan episodes always elicited a "why wasn't that guy on more often" response, which is a credit to Hammer's effective (if brief) time on the show.

Hammer went on to appear in only two more television shows. One of those was the long-running CBS daytime soap opera "Guiding Light," on which he played journalist Fletcher Reade between 1984 and 1998. Some people might treat soaps as silly diversions, but if your character catches on with a series' viewership you will work for a very long time. Hammer turned 79 last year, and has no IMDb credits post-"Guiding Light," so hopefully he's enjoying a well-deserved retirement!

Marla Gibbs

It is not hyperbole to say that "The Jeffersons" would've never lasted more than a season without Marla Gibbs. As the Jeffersons' tart-tongued maid Florence Johnston, Gibbs did what no one else on the show could do on a consistent basis: she gave Hemsley the business. Gibbs was integral to the series' long run and received five Primetime Emmy nominations for her exceptional work.

Gibbs was television royalty at this point, and she was justly rewarded by creators C.J. Banks and Bill Boulware, who built the popular Washington D.C.-set sitcom "227" around her. The series ran five seasons and turned Jackée Henry into a star via her loud-and-proud portrayal of neighbor Sandra Clark. (The show also launched the career of a promising young actor named Regina King.) Gibbs has kept very busy since "227" ended in 1990, mostly on television in ... well, if it aired over the last 30 years there's a good chance she put in an appearance! She was on "A Different World," "Dawson's Creek," "Scandal" (which /News declared the second-best series of Shonda Rhimes' career), and scads of other hit shows. Sometimes they cast Gibbs to be Gibbs, but she could also disappear into a character. She's a living legend, and, at 92, I hope she knows how beloved she is by her fans. That star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame might be a decent indicator of this.