If you had to pick one show that spanned the 1970s and 1980s … and represented the feel and mores of both decades … you’d be hard-pressed to find a better choice than The Jeffersons.
From the time George Jefferson and son Lionel began appearing on All in the Family until the lights dimmed on The Jeffersons set for the last time in 1985, the characters and stories became part of American culture.
The Jeffersons cast were, for a decade, among our small screen royalty. But where are they now, you ask?
Let’s find out (in alphabetical order) …
Paul Benedict (Harry Bentley)
Harry Bentley was the impossibly polite and almost grotesquely British next-door neighbor who George wanted to hate but couldn’t quite muster.
Part of it was that the big, gangly United Nations interpreter was always around, which meant he was always available to walk on George’s bulky back.
Mostly, though, they just meshed — not on the surface, maybe, but deep down — and formed a real friendship over the years.
Paul Benedict, who played Bentley, started his acting career with some bit parts in the mid-1960s before landing on TV as a character actor more regular in the 1970s.
Of course, The Jeffersons was his big break, and he continued to work more or less until his death from unknown causes in 2008 at the age of 70.
Franklin Cover (Tom Willis)
Tom Willis was another of the Jefferson’s next-door neighbors and was the series’ primary representation of rich, boorish white folks. His nickname — at the hands of George, naturally — was Honky.
(And, if you squint a little, you can just about turn that hair flip on the back of his head into down — a deep descendant of Scrooge McDuck, perhaps?)
But Tom wasn’t just some big oaf. Nope, he was successful in his own right, and he was married to Helen — who just happened to be a strong black woman, played by Roxie Roker (see below).
And … the Willises had two kids — Allan, a white guy … and Jenny, a black girl
Jenny would end up as Lionel Jefferson’s love interest, which of course welded the families together whether they wanted to be or not.
Franklin Cover, who played Tom, did a masterful job of portraying lingering biases in the face of a budding friendship with George.
Cover began his TV career in 1960 as Henry IV on an episode of Play of the Week and made his final screen appearance on Will & Grace in 1999.
He died of pneumonia in 2006, at the age of 77.
Marla Gibbs (Florence Johnston)
Marla Gibbs already had several credits to her name by the time she landed the role of housekeeper Florence Johnston in 1975.
This despite the fact that she was already 44 when Florence sprung to life.
Gibbs found her voice on The Jeffersons, though, and she was just about the only character who could go toe-to-toe with George. She even got the better of him sometimes, and the show wouldn’t have been the same without her.
Even today, as she heads towards 90, Gibbs is still out there acting and shows no signs of slowing down.
Sherman Hemsley (George Jefferson)
Sherman Hemsley was already 35 years old when he got his first real Hollywood role, as George Jefferson on All in the Family in 1973.
Even though it was an experiment to start with, next-door-neighbor George’s encounters with Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) soon grew into a must-see TV segment.
And not long after that, Norman Lear and the rest of the Archie braintrust decided George could stand on his own, and they spun off The Jeffersons.
After he and Weezy moved on up the east side, George dug into his fiery personality even harder and became a 1970s TV icon.
When The Jeffersons ended in 1985, Hemsley moved immediately into a series of high-profile guest appearances and the found a new home as Deacon Ernest Frye on Amen.
After that series ended in 1991, Hemsley continued to make appearances on other shows until 2011, a year before his 2012 death from lung cancer.
He was 74 years old.
Roxie Roker (Helen Willis)
Helen Willis definitely wore the pants in the Willis household, at least when push came to shove.
Tom may have blustered his way through life, but he was devoted to his spitfire wife and would do just about anything for her. Roxie Roker, who played Helen, brought that fire to life and helped drive the couple’s dynamic — with George, with Weezy, with the kids.
Roker had just a few roles to her credit before landing Helen, but that didn’t stop her from making magic on the screen.
It also didn’t stop her — in real life — from making rocker Lenny Kravitz, her son with husband Sy Kravitz.
After The Jeffersons, Roker continued to act but didn’t land any recurring roles.
Sadly, she died of breast cancer in 1985 at the age of 56.
Isabel Sanford (Louise Jefferson)
A strutting little chicken like George Jefferson needs a strong woman to keep him in line and to stand her ground when he gets too full of himself.
In that light, Louise Jefferson was the perfect mate for George, and the two formed one of TV’s all-time great couples.
Just as it’s hard to imagine George married to anyone but Weezy, it’s also hard to imagine any other actress but Isabel Sanford in that role.
From her deep, rich voice to her droll expressions to her flair for drama, Weezy could collar George like no one else.
Like others on this list, Sanford was still young in her career when she came to The Jeffersons, but she had some major credits under her belt — think Bewitched, The Carol Burnett Show, Mary Tyler Moore, Daniel Boone.
Sanford kept working after The Jeffersons ended, too, making numerous guest appearances all the way up to an episode of The Young and The Restless in 2002.
Sanford died of natural causes in July of 2004, a month shy of her 87th birthday.