The Jeffersons: The True Story Behind One Of TV’s Most Iconic Shows (P3)

The Jeffersons: The True Story Behind One Of TV’s Most Iconic Shows (P3)

Paul Benedict’s lifesaving diagnosis

Like Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford, actor Paul Benedict, who played the Jeffersons’ neighbor Harry Bentley, got his start in the theater. Having grown up in Boston, Benedict attended Suffolk University and began acting in the ’60s with the Theatre Company of Boston (where he performed with Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino). Benedict was known partly for his distinctive facial features, including a prominent jaw. It turns out there was a reason for this — and it could have made Benedict’s life a lot worse.

According to the L.A. Times’ obituary of Benedict and Rick Mitz’s “The Great TV Sitcom Book,” prior to “The Jeffersons,” when Benedict was performing in a play, an endocrinologist approached him afterwards and asked him to come in for tests. Benedict’s issues, which had plagued him since childhood, were partly attributed to acromegaly, a pituitary disorder. Subsequent treatment prevented the disease from spreading while Benedict continued to act, and Benedict would go on to use his features for comic effect.

Marla Gibbs didn’t give up her day job

Before she landed the role of Florence, the Jeffersons’ maid, Marla Gibbs had been working as a flight reservation clerk for United Airlines for 11 years — but getting the part didn’t mean the end of her time with United. In fact, she held onto the job for two years after she began work on “The Jeffersons.”

Gibbs told The Washington Post that when the series was being taped, she’d leave the studio at 5:30 pm, then go to United, where she worked until 11 at night. In a Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter, Gibbs credited producer Bernie West with convincing her to leave United by offering to cover her extra expenses. She recounted in the interview that West asked if she still had the United job. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Aren’t you tired?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Would you take a leave?’ I said, ‘If you pay me.’ So I took a 90-day leave from United.” Gibbs never looked back, and went on to a successful career that included a leading role in another successful sitcom, “227.”

A willingness to address thorny themes

While “The Jeffersons” was first and foremost a sitcom, it dealt with a number of subjects that were not regularly tackled by the genre. In Season 2, Episode 18, George and Louise suspect something’s wrong with Florence after she cleans their apartment without griping, takes a taxi to work, kisses Bentley, hands Louise one of her prized possessions, randomly attempts to call an uncle she hasn’t spoken to in 20 years, and tells them she’s heading to the top of the Empire State Building. Louise discovers a strange letter (“Dear Mrs. Jefferson, Thank you for everything. Goodbye. Love, Florence”) that compounds their concern. George, Lionel, and Louise confront Florence, and remind her how much she’s loved. (“You’re not just a maid,” Lionel tells her. “You’re one of the family,” to which Florence replies, “Lord, I thought Black folks only heard that one in white homes.”) According to BET, it was one of the first TV episodes to address suicide.

An awards season favorite

Among a uniformly excellent cast, the only “Jeffersons” actor to win a Primetime Emmy was Isabel Sanford, in 1981. Nominated seven times overall for her work on the show, Sanford was the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. Marla Gibbs was nominated six times and Sherman Hemsley once, but neither took home the award. (The other Emmy the show won was a technical award for tape editing — props to Larry Harris and the editing department at CBS.)

“The Jeffersons” also received Golden Globe Award nominations in 1977, 1978, 1983, and 1984, all for Sanford; in 1985, the show was nominated, along with Sanford, Gibbs, and Hemsley. The show was also a nominee for the Humanitas Prize and received a WGA Award nomination (for “Once a Friend”) in 1978, and won two NAACP Image Awards in 1982, for Hemsley and Gibbs.

The Jeffersons had no proper series finale


Eleven seasons in, “The Jeffersons” was canceled — a move that seemed to take the cast by surprise, according to BET; though the show had been falling in the ratings, bouncing from No. 3 in Season 8 to No. 50 in Season 11, it wasn’t until after the July 2, 1985 episode “Red Robins” that news trickled out. Sanford apparently learned about it from a cousin, who had read it in a tabloid, while Hemsley read it in the newspaper.

The decision felt like a slap in the face, according to Sanford in an interview with the Archive of American Television; as with other long-running shows of the era (i.e. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “M*A*S*H”), there should have been a more fitting finale, Sanford felt.  But the show’s legacy has been long since cemented through its ardent fanbase. It received nine TV Land nominations between 2003 and 2008 (winning one, for “Favorite Cantankerous Couple”) and it continues to live on — and find new generations of fans — through streaming platforms.

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