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The Only Actors Still Alive From The Cast Of The Jeffersons

After years of fighting with his Queens neighbor Archie Bunker on Norman Lear's landmark TV series "All in the Family," in 1975 dry cleaning magnate George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) and his wife Louise (Isobel Sanford) finally hit the big time and moved on up to the East Side for their own long-running spin-off "The Jeffersons." 

Much like they had done with Archie on "All in the Family," Lear and his writers used George as a blunt, hilarious, often wrongheaded tool for addressing the social and political debates of the day. The groundbreaking series included an interracial couple (the Jeffersons' in-laws Tom and Helen Willis, played by Franklin Covey and Roxie Roker) in its main cast of characters and regularly tackled issues of race, class, sex, and gender for more than 250 episodes. Its presentation of Black wealth would influence future network shows such as "The Cosby Show" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air;" Hemsley and Sanford would even reprise their roles as George and "Weezie" on two episodes of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

More than 35 years after it went off the air, "The Jeffersons" remains one of the best-remembered sitcoms of its era, with one of the greatest theme songs in television history. Many of its main cast, however, have unfortunately passed away. 

Fortunately, there are more than a few memorable "Jeffersons" faces still with us, some continuing to make great work on stage and screen. Let's check in on them.

Ebonie Smith

With just a few appearances in the final two seasons of "The Jeffersons" as George and Weezie's granddaughter Jessica, actress Ebonie Smith nonetheless made an impression. Often, Jessica was a pawn in whatever scheme her grandparents were cooking up, whether it was Weezie trying to show up a socialite by forcing Jessica into a piano competition, or George taking over her "Red Robin" scout troupe to look good for the Dry Cleaner of the Year award in the series' final episode.

Smith had a busy career as a child actor; after "The Jeffersons," her most recognizable role is arguably that of Danny Glover's youngest daughter in the "Lethal Weapon" series. As a teen and young adult Smith appeared on "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Living Single," and had brief recurring roles on the soap operas "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "Port Charles." In the 2000s, Smith pivoted to a medical career, attending University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. She currently practices psychiatry under her married name, Ebonie Michele Vasquez.

Garrett Morris

In the Season 9 episode "True Confessions," George and Weezie have been sponsoring a 12-year-old foster child named Jimmy — or, so they think. When they finally meet him, Jimmy turns out to be a middle-aged conman played by actor Garrett Morris. Jimmy would turn up again in Season 10, most notably in the three-part episode "Mission: Incredible," in which George enlists him to help Tom get back $15,000 he lost to a pair of scammers.

By the time he was on "The Jeffersons," the New Orleans native was already well-known for films like "Cooley High" and "Car Wash," as well as for being part of the legendary original cast of not ready for primetime players on "Saturday Night Live." After his stint on "The Jeffersons," Morris mainly made guest appearances on shows like "Hill Street Blues" and "Who's the Boss?" with recurring roles on the cop show "Hunter" and "It's Your Move," starring a young Jason Bateman. 

In the 1990s he embraced his role as an elder statesman, playing family or mentors to the next generation of Black comedians on "Roc," "Martin," and "The Jamie Foxx Show." He was a regular on the CBS sitcom "Two Broke Girls" in the 2010s, and made cameos on HBO's "A Black Lady Sketch Show" and "Ant Man" (a reference to a classic "SNL" sketch), among many other film and TV projects. At 85 years old, Garrett shows no signs of retiring any time soon.

Ernest Harden Jr.

Ernest Harden Jr. had played a small role in a Season 3 episode of "The Jeffersons" before being cast as Marcus Henderson in Season 4's "George's Help." A troubled teen from Weezie's youth program, Marcus is driven in a way reminiscent of a younger George, and is not afraid to run a scheme or two to get his way. This becomes clear in "The Jefferson Curve" (Season 4, Episode 14), when he tells a young woman he is George's son in order to get a date. Marcus also serves as a reminder of how distant, both literally and metaphorically, the Jeffersons are now from the community that they came from.

After "The Jeffersons," Harden landed perhaps his most notable role, starring in the 1980 TV movie "White Mama" opposite screen legend Bette Davis. Since then he has lived the life of a working actor, splitting time between small roles on network shows like "ER" and "Rizzoli and Isles," studio films like 2002's "Hollywood Homicide" and Clint Eastwood's biopic "J. Edgar," and headlining in small and independent films, such as the award-winning "Velvet Jesus."

Jay Hammer

Allan Willis, the mixed-race but white-presenting son of Tom and Helen Willis and brother of Jenny (Berlinda Tolbert), first appeared in a Season 1 episode played by actor Andrew Rubin. When the character was brought back for a recurring role in Season 5, he was played by Jay Hammer. Allan's Caucasian appearance makes him the butt of many jokes by George, but it also lets the show address interracial marriage from a unique perspective, as in the episode "Half a Brother" (Season 5, Episode 8), when a prospective (white) business partner of George's balks at the idea that his daughter and Allan might one day have a Black baby.

Hammer had played in just a few television roles before "The Jeffersons," on episodes of "Kojak," "Emergency!," and "Greatest Heroes of the Bible." In 1981 he replaced actor Chandler Hill Harben on over seventy episodes of the "Another World" spin-off "Texas." This one-year soap opera stint was followed by an even longer tenure, playing Fletcher Reade on "Guiding Light" from 1984 to 1998. Hammer reprised the role for one episode in 1999, and then again in 2009 for the long-running soap's series finale. Hammer has kept a low profile since, and seems to have retired from acting; the "Guiding Light" finale is his most recent credit.

Damon Evans

Damon Evans took over the role of George and Weezie's son Lionel in Season 2 after the departure of actor/writer Mike Evans (no relation), who had originated the role on "All in the Family." Evans played the role until the end of Season 4, when he left the series to pursue his stage career. Mike Evans returned to the role sporadically starting in Season 6, with the character not appearing for years at a time before finally being written off during the show's final season.

Evans considered himself a musician first and foremost, having studied at Michigan's famed Interlochen Arts Academy as a young man. After "The Jeffersons" he focused on stage work, with just a couple of on-screen roles, most notably as young Alex Haley in the 1979 TV movie sequel "Roots: The Next Generations." Evans garnered acclaim for his stage work in British productions of "Carmen Jones" and the Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess," which was filmed for a 1993 episode of "Great Performances" on PBS. But success overseas did not translate to success in the US, and Evans struggled with depression and drug addiction as his career took a downturn. By 2001, he had entered recovery and was performing again in regional theaters. When NPR caught up with him in 2007, he was working on an Associate's degree in Psychology from Bronx Community College, and would later graduate from Brooklyn College, where in 2021 he appeared as a special guest at an event hosted by that university's LGBTQ resource center.

Berlinda Tolbert

Actress Berlinda Tolbert played Jenny Willis Jefferson from the series' very first episode — before that, even, on the episode of "All in the Family" that serves as the series' backdoor pilot. As George and Weezie's daughter-in-law and actual daughter to neighbors Tom and Helen Willis, Jenny was often in the mix of whatever scheme was happening from week to week, even more so than her husband Lionel. Tolbert appeared on over 100 episodes and was a regular on the show until Season 10, when Jenny and Lionel moved to Japan, leaving their daughter Jessica in the care of her grandparents. Tolbert and Mike Evans as Lionel appeared on just two episodes in Season 11, when they returned from Japan to announce their divorce.

Tolbert studied acting at the North Carolina School for the Arts and appeared briefly in Martin Scorsese's breakthrough film "Mean Streets" plus a few small television roles before being cast as Jenny. After her time on "The Jeffersons" concluded, Tolbert performed on stage and appeared on episodes of "Amen" and "Jake and the Fatman." In 1989 she had a supporting role in Eddie Murphy's 1930s crime drama "Harlem Nights," and a year later reunited with Scorsese for a cameo in "Goodfellas." Tolbert spent the 1990s and 2000s appearing in small roles here and there, and in 2011 she took a break from acting in order to care for her ailing mother in North Carolina. As of 2021 she was still a Charlotte resident and active in local politics, supporting the fight against gentrification and historical erasure.

Marla Gibbs

As Florence, the Jeffersons' sarcastic, no-nonsense maid, Marla Gibbs was nominated for five Emmy awards, a Golden Globe, and an NAACP Image Award. Florence was always ready with a comeback whenever George would get onto her about something, and the audience rightfully ate it up. It was a breakout role on a massively popular sitcom, and Gibbs took advantage of that visibility to advocate for the real life Florences in the world, domestic staff who do not have the luxury of a studio audience applauding them weekly.

Gibbs' skills as Florence and her ease in front of the camera was all the more remarkable considering how new she was to acting when was cast. Born Margaret Bradley in Chicago, Gibbs moved to Los Angeles as an adult and began to take acting and dance classes while working a day job for United Airlines; in fact, she maintained her ticket reservation job for the first two years she was on the show. In 1981 she headlined her own spin-off, "Checking In," in which Florence worked at a hotel, but returned to "The Jeffersons" after the series failed to attract audiences. Like her co-stars Hemsley and Sanford, Gibbs would reprise her role on an episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," a show whose own sarcastic domestic worker (Joseph Marcel as Geoffrey) owed an obvious debt to Florence. Gibbs has continued to work through her eighties and now into her nineties, with recurring roles on "The Hughleys," "Days of Our Lives," and a notable appearance in the "Breaking Bad" sequel film "El Camino" as a woman shopping for (what else) a vacuum cleaner.