Actor Damon Evans Keeps Moving
(Soundbite of song, "Movin' On Up")
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Well we're moving on up to the east side. To the deluxe apartment…
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Come on. You know you know that song. That's right. It's the theme song for "The Jeffersons." For 11 years, from 1974 to 1985, the hit show followed the adventures of George and Louise Jefferson after they moved from the hood to a high rise. But the show actually started as a spin-off of CBS's other monster hit, "All in the Family."
And the first Jefferson actually introduced on that show was that of Lionel, George and Louise's son. Two actors played Lionel - the late Michael Evans and Damon Evans. I recently caught up with Damon Evans in New York where he is still moving on up but in a different way.
Mr. DAMON EVANS (Actor): Hi, Michel. How are you doing?
MARTIN: Great. And thanks for coming to talk to us.
Mr. EVANS: No, the pleasure is mine.
MARTIN: Okay. So you replaced the actor who originated the role. What happened?
Mr. EVANS: Well, first of all, Michael and I are not related. I've never met Michael. Lionel was never in every episode, and so when it came time for the show to reach its second season because it was a mid-season replacement. Mike said look, it's I'm in every episode or I quit. And they said you're fired.
MARTIN: Why did you want the job?
Mr. EVANS: I wanted to educate America. Lionel was a black man who was working on his masters in business at NYU. He was married. He was getting ready to have a family. Americans hadn't seen anything like that. You know coming from a middle-class background myself, I wanted to see that represented. I wanted to see America know what that was about.
MARTIN: You said that it was important to you to have the opportunity to portray African-Americans in a light that many people weren't used to seeing it. Let's play a short clip.
(Soundbite of "The Jeffersons")
Mr. EVANS: (As Lionel Jefferson) (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EVANS: (As Lionel Jefferson) Come on, mom. Now what's pop done this time?
Ms. ISABEL SANFORD (Actress): (As Louise Jefferson) I don't want to talk about it.
Mr. EVANS: (As Lionel Jefferson) Oh, well, then it can't be too bad. Hey, Jenny, every time mom can't get her own way, she likes to take it out on poor pop.
Ms. SANFORD: (As Louise Jefferson) Do you think he's going out on business tonight? Wrong. He's stepping out on me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EVANS: (As Lionel Jefferson) What? Mom, that's crazy. You ought to know pop better that. Now just because he hasn't been hanging around the house doesn't mean he's going out with another woman. I mean the man is probably off opening up another store.
Ms. SANFORD: (As Louise Jefferson) Don't argue with your mother.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: What we're you like on the set?
Mr. EVANS: When I walked in the set, first of all, there was Sherman who I've already worked with in theater, with the Urban Arts Corps and Vinette Carroll's. So that was already established. There was Roxie Roker who played Helen Willis, part of the zebra couple. We'd gone to the same church together.
MARTIN: Zebra couple? I don't believe that you just said that? I think you meant an interracial couple. I think that's what you meant to say.
Mr. EVANS: No. But I used to term that George used.
MARTIN: Oh, okay.
Mr. EVANS: Within the context of the show. That's what he called it, zebra couple.
MARTIN: Okay. I stand corrected.
Mr. EVANS: And I'd always loved Roxie. It was…
MARTIN: It's a little tough to adjust because this kind of relationship had already been formed.
Mr. EVANS: And because - yeah. Yeah. That's right.
MARTIN: How was the work for you as an actor, as a performer, particular someone who'd worked on Broadway? It's a pretty serious work.
Mr. EVANS: It was difficult. There were times I was very frustrated, which has eventually, too, why I left. Not to mention the demands that one's personal life and family can have on them. I mean, suddenly, you know, I was no longer little Dickie(ph) - that's what they knew me in my family. I was certainly the TV star, Lionel.
And there were all these expectations. And when I see someone like a Darryl Strawberry or even a Dave Chappelle, who I respect tremendously for walking away from something he could not handle at that time, a lot of people don't understand that.
MARTIN: Well, give me an example. I mean, it's - were their family members who came out of the woodwork that you didn't know you had? And other people who had expectations or who wanted you to - what? What did they want you to do? Buy them a house? Buy them a car?
Mr. EVANS: Okay. Okay. Yes. I mean, really, they want my home. They want my - they want me, my rent stabilized apartment. There were these things that just didn't make any sense, and it was like, look, stop.
MARTIN: Now, you became known as Lionel Jefferson, probably a lot of people, that's well and people - you actually have a whole other life as a performer. You are an opera singer, a stage performer, you've been nominated for a Grammy, a Lawrence Olivier Award, sung with the London Symphony Orchestra, you played Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess," and I think we should play a short clip.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Porgy and Bess")
Mr. EVANS (Actor): (As Sportin' Life) (Singing) Listen, I'll be going to New York soon. I'll hide you and I'll take you with me. Why, you and me will make swell team.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I ain't hopin' but then you.
Mr. EVANS: (As Sportin' Life) Well, the captain's going to find me here for no (unintelligible)
MARTIN: Have you had an opportunity to live that side of your performing life since "The Jeffersons," or were you so - was your identity as a performer so overshadowed by that stint on "The Jeffersons" that it kind of colored everything - no pun intended - that did subsequently?
Mr. EVANS: I really thought I was going to have a career sort of like Andre McDonald. But I would everything. That I was going to sing one day. You know, I wouldn't be labeled. And for some reason, you'd be surprised how many people, when I was doing "The Jeffersons," thought I was a comedian. So when I would go and say well, I want to do this, and I would try to outline to them, what I do - they would say, that's impossible.
Most of my singing career really did take place in London, and I did everything there. I did stage. I did opera. I did concerts.
MARTIN: So you had a whole other life that a lot of people don't know anything about?
Mr. EVANS: Yeah.
MARTIN: And you have yet another life because - which is actually what we wanted to talk to you about. We wanted to talk to you about what you're doing right now. You're attending Bronx Community College.
Mr. EVANS: Yes.
MARTIN: You'll graduate in June with associate's degree in psychology. Early congratulations on that.
Mr. EVANS: Thank you. (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Make sure you pay your term bill because you will not get that piece of paper. But what drew you back to school after so many years?
Mr. EVANS: Okay. It - well, first of all, the work wasn't coming in steady. And I am one of these people - I am useless when I am not active. And to be quite honest, I didn't have a direction when I went there. I just sort of just said well, let me just see where this goes. I started loving it, I mean, started knowing that I could even write.
And thing start evolving and I started tutoring. It's really been pretty phenomenal. It really was the verbal autobiography that brought this attention to the fact of what I've done and I - and for… I talked to the students about what it meant about learning to let go of family, about, you know, following your own course in life, and about confronting the fear of change. And I think, for me, that was the hardest thing - was that I was so afraid to give up my identity as a performer. And you know - but gradually it happened, and of course, there's this whole new world in life. I was afraid of change.
MARTIN: So what's next for you? I'm told that you would love to get a degree in history. Is that so?
Mr. EVANS: Yeah. I…
MARTIN: Why history?
Mr. EVANS: Well, first of all, I would like to do graduate work in African-American studies. I think that the perfect background for that is history. You know, history is just such a lesson in learning not what to do again.
MARTIN: Damon Evans, it's been a pleasure to speak with you.
Mr. EVANS: No. No. I feel so flattered.
MARTIN: Thank you so much.
Mr. EVANS: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Damon Evans portrayed Lionel Jefferson on the hit sitcom "The Jeffersons" from 1975 to 1978. He currently attends Bronx Community College and expects to graduate in June.
Damon Evans, how about singing us out with the theme song. I know you know you can sing. Come on. Sing us out a bit of "Movin' On Up."
Mr. EVANS: (Singing) We are moving on up to the east side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky. We're moving on up to the east side. We've finally got a piece of the pie.
(Soundbite of song, "Movin' On Up")
Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) Fish don't fry in the kitchen, beans don't burn on the grill. Took a whole lotta tryin' just to get up that hill. Now we're up in the big leagues, getting' our turn at bat…
MARTIN: That's NEWS & NOTES.
(Soundbite of music)
I'm Michel Martin. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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