From the opening bars of the ecstatic, soaring theme song that could have come from the choir loft of a Baptist church — except that it celebrated ”movin’ on up to the East Side” — The Jeffersons, which premiered on CBS Jan. 18, 1975, was a show of a different color. At a time when many black families on network TV seemed to be straight out of Central Stereotyping, George and Louise Jefferson were the first upscale African-American couple in prime time. ”People give all the credit to The Cosby Show,” recalls Isabel Sanford, who played Louise to Sherman Hemsley’s George. ”But they forget that we did it first, a full 10 years before.”
What they did was prove that black characters who were smart, funny, and successful could attract an audience that was both huge and color-blind. The Jeffersons was a hit from its first weeks on the air (charting as high as No. 4 in the 1974-75 season), thanks in part to the particular sass of the maid, Florence (Marla Gibbs). The show also broke new ground with the Willises (played by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker), prime time’s first interracial couple.
The topicality and the unconventional wit were hallmarks of producer Norman Lear. The creator of All in the Family was given a mandate from CBS to spin off sitcoms from his fabulously successful hit. So, after four years playing Archie and Edith Bunker’s neighbor, ”[Norman] told me that he wanted to build a new series around George and Louise,” Sanford recalls…and she was none too keen on the idea. ”I was very comfortable having a steady job on a hit show, and who knew if The Jeffersons would catch on?”
The Jeffersons did catch on, and by the mid-’80s it was one of the longest-running prime-time series on the air. But in January 1985, a CBS executive began grumbling publicly that the show was ”tired,” and sagging numbers produced a futile scramble to goose the ratings with ”stunt” episodes featuring the likes of Reggie Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., and even a gaggle of Playboy Playmates. Months later the cast and crew read in the trades that they didn’t have jobs anymore. ”The network never even sent any official notification,” says Brad Lemack, a publicist for the show. ”They just leaked word to the papers and sent Sherman and Isabel gold clocks.”
But The Jeffersons refused to sink quietly into Trivial Pursuit oblivion. Instead, the show and its stars have ascended into the pop-culture firmament, through retro-chic Old Navy commercials and reruns on Nick at Nite, where The Jeffersons is among the highest-rated programs. ”They just can’t keep us down,” Sanford says with a laugh. ”We keep rising on up again.”