AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Next, we take a moment to remember the legacy of George Jefferson. The man who played him - Sherman Hemsley - died yesterday. Hemsley's portrayal of the irascible, bigoted and yet beloved George Jefferson on the sitcom "The Jeffersons" was popular with both black and white audiences in the late '70s and early '80s. The show was a spinoff from "All in the Family." George Jefferson was, in some ways, a black version of the white anti-hero Archie Bunker. Both shows derived laughs from the way their main characters dealt with race, as in this scene in which George Jefferson finds out that his son's fiancee has a white father.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JEFFERSONS")
MIKE EVANS: (as Lionel Jefferson) George, I thought you said you like Jenny.
SHERMAN HEMSLEY: (as George Jefferson) That's before I met him.
EVANS: (as Lionel Jefferson) Wait, now, you don't even know him.
HEMSLEY: (as George Jefferson) I don't want to know him. I don't want no white in-laws in my family.
EVANS: (as Lionel Jefferson) They're going to be my in-laws, not yours.
HEMSLEY: (as George Jefferson) Think, son, think. What about the children? What are they going to be?
EVANS: (as Lionel Jefferson) Boys and girls, I hope.
CORNISH: "The Jeffersons" ran for 11 seasons, the longest running series on television starring black characters. And here to talk about the legacy of the show is TV writer and media critic Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times.
And, Eric, 11 seasons, the show ran longer than "The Cosby Show." I mean, put "The Jeffersons" in context. What else was on TV at the time, and where do "The Jeffersons" fit in?
ERIC DEGGANS: Well, as you said earlier, it was a spinoff of "All in the Family." They took these characters that were neighbors of Archie Bunker and his family and gave them their own show. Norman Lear, the executive producer of "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times," created all of these shows to try and talk about what people were going through at that time as opposed to earlier shows, which were sort of seen like a fantasyland, like "The Brady Bunch" or "The Andy Griffith Show." So we did. We had shows that were trying to show black people especially in circumstances that other black people would recognize.
CORNISH: And for the sake of comparison, let's take a listen to the show "Good Times," which was on TV around the same time as "The Jeffersons."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")
CORNISH: So one thing about "Good Times," it's a working-class family essentially living in the projects, and the whole point of "The Jeffersons" is moving on up, right? This sort of upwardly mobile character and how he deals with questions of race and class along the way.
DEGGANS: Exactly. And the previous, say, eight years or so were characterized by efforts to sort of break down institutional racism in America from the Civil Rights Act to desegregation in schools. And so you had this whole level of black folks who were just being held back by institutional racism, and once those bonds started to break, they could build businesses. They could get great jobs, and they could move into the middle class and upper middle class in a way that they hadn't been able to do before.
And "The Jeffersons" in its own way, even though it was also a very typical sitcom, very broad, it also talked about those elements. You know, George had to deal with his friends from the old neighborhood. They would come to visit and embarrass him because he was trying to impress the new wealthy people that he lived with in his new high-rise. And, you know, there was always that tension, and I think some black folks were actually going through that in their own lives. They could recognize a bit of that in what George Jefferson was doing.
CORNISH: In the end, what did Sherman Hemsley bring to this role because it was his performance that really made it stand out?
DEGGANS: Definitely. And, you know, cultural critics talk about black actors taking roles that were created for them by white producers and writers and investing them with so much of their own personality and their own charisma and their own performing power that they almost transformed the role, and they helped make it more realistic. And I think Sherman Hemsley did that with George Jefferson. That strut that he had, you know, where he would go from side - it's not how it go from side to side. That, you know, they turned that into a dance in my neighborhood. You know, we had a dance called the George Jefferson because this guy was so powerful and so compelling.
CORNISH: Eric Deggans, thank you so much for talking with us.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
CORNISH: That's TV writer and media critic Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times. He was talking with us about the legacy of the sitcom "The Jeffersons." The actor who played George Jefferson - Sherman Hemsley - died yesterday. He was 74.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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