Where’s Marla going?” Sherman Hemsley asks as Marla Gibbs ambles to a corner of the threadbare San Fernando Valley, Calif., studio where most of The Jeffersons’ cast has reunited for a stage version of its smash 1975-85 sitcom. ”She went to put on makeup,” says Roxie Roker, who is reprising her role as the Jeffersons’ neighbor Helen Willis.
”Do we have a trowel?” Hemsley snorts.
Make no mistake: George Jefferson is back, and snarly as ever. In one of the three early-’80s episodes being rehearsed for The Best of the Jeffersons, Gibbs as Florence, the family maid, asks her boss if he minds opening a dry-cleaning store so close to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. ”Every morning when I eat breakfast, you make me feel like I’m in Hell’s Kitchen,” Hemsley shoots back.
It’s not Chekhov — it’s not even Cheers — but George Jefferson does hold a place in entertainment history. The first black character presented as an arrogant, intolerant bigot — the black Archie Bunker — George was also one of TV’s first upper-income blacks, appearing nearly a decade before The Cosby Show began its own long run. Jeffersons references in the films Basic Instinct and CB4 attest to its continuing influence on pop culture.
And now audiences are now handing over good money for live renditions of put-downs they can still hear for free through the magic of worldwide syndication. The 5,000-seat Fox Theatre in Detroit enjoyed brisk ticket sales for the April 8-11 opening run of The Best. Later this month, the cast will take the show to Fort Lauderdale, with hopes for an extended road tour. ”What happens next is up to God,” says Isabel Sanford, 68, who is back as George’s wife, Louise (”Weezy”).
The stage version of The Jeffersons follows in the footsteps of such TV-to-theater productions as The Real Live Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island: The Musical, but there’s one notable difference: Neither of those shows featured real live original-cast members. ”All the Brady Bunch stuff was cutesy, cutesy,” Hemsley, 55, sniffs. ”I thought this would make an interesting stage comedy.”
Hemsley’s trowel line was clearly meant as a joke — ”We really do like one another,” he says of the cast. In the eight years since the show left the air, time has taken its toll on them all, but their spirits have remained youthful. ”I just turned 30,” Gibbs, 61, jokes. ”I started this show when I was, uh, 12.” Roker, 63, pipes in: ”Don’t you know that black don’t crack?” And Franklin Cover, 64, who plays Helen’s husband, Tom, reports, ”I’m a little grayer on top, and a little thinner. We have all these fat jokes — they may have to pad me.”
A few cast members are missing. Ned Wertimer, 63, skipped the first rehearsal because he was on vacation in Acapulco but will return as Ralph the doorman. Paul Benedict (snooty Harry Bentley), who began directing the show, left to do a film. Damon Evans and Mike Evans, two unrelated actors who played the Jeffersons’ son, Lionel, won’t appear now, but one of them may join later. Damon is an opera singer in London; Mike is semiretired and lives near Palm Springs, Calif.
So why did the others decide to re-create their sitcom on the boards? Reason No. 1: no finale. ”They snatched the rug from under us while we were on hiatus,” Sanford recalls of The Jeffersons’ cancellation. Adds Roker: ”We had no closure.”
Reason No. 2: no respect. ”When a show is popular, sometimes the industry dismisses it,” Cover laments and Hemsley agrees: ”Maybe part of this is giving ourselves the recognition.”
Reason No. 3: no cash. ”All the money is gone,” Gibbs says, laughing. Not that they were rich; most were unknown stage actors when the series began. ”We went together to ask for raises when we heard the Diff’rent Strokes kids made more than us,” Cover says. Their request was granted.
In the post-Jeffersons era, Cover returned to stage work, as did Roker, who has seen her rocker son, Lenny Kravitz, attain his own fame. Hemsley and Gibbs starred in the hit NBC sitcoms Amen and 227, respectively. Sanford has done game shows and cashed residual checks — ”The last one was for 99 cents,” she cracks — and recently signed for an appearance on HBO’s sitcom Dream On.
But it’s for The Jeffersons that the cast will be best remembered. ”When I go to New York, all the skycaps want my autograph,” Cover says proudly. ”We were a family show,” Roker says. ”George loved Weezy to pieces and was a working black man.” And while insults were their shtick-in-trade, Hemsley notes, ”There was love underneath.”
”This is our work,” Roker says. ”It’s not all going to be Shakespeare.” But for now, all their world’s a stage.