The Jeffersons is one of the longest-running sitcoms in television history and the second-longest running American series that featured a mostly African-American cast. It was also the first to feature an interracial marriage. This spin-off of All in the Family ground-breaking in many ways, both through the characters on the show and the storylines it featured.
The Jeffersons cast features some of the most popular stars of its era. Unfortunately, most of them are no longer with us. In this video, we’re going to look at how each of The Jeffersons cast members died. Be sure to watch until the end of the video to learn who’s still alive and what they’re up to.
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Zara Cully known for her role as Olivia “Mother Jefferson” Jefferson on the hit series. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on January 26, 1892 and had nine siblings. She graduated from the Worcester School of Speech and Music and after moving to Jacksonville, Florida, she started in producing, writing, and directing as well as acting in numerous plays. Zara taught drama at her own studio as well as at Edward Waters College for 15 years, where she became known as Florida’s “Dean of Drama.”
She had a long list of acting credits by the time she landed the role of Mother Jefferson including movies such as The Liberation of L.B. Jones, Brother John, and Sugar Hill. Zara got a late start in acting, making her television debut in “Run for Your Life” in 1966, at the age of 74.
She first appeared as Mother Jefferson in an episode of All in the Family which aired on February 9, 1974. She was 82 years old at the time. Her final credit was an appearance in season 4, episode 9 of The Jeffersons, entitled The Last Leaf. It aired on November 12, 1977, three months before she died. Zara Cully died on February 28, 1978, after which she posthumously awarded an NAACP special Image Award at the 11th annual NAACP Awards ceremony.
Roxie Roker played the role of Helen Willis on The Jeffersons. The role groundbreaking as her character was married to a white man, the first interracial couple to be featured on national TV. She started her career in theater and had appeared in a number of other television series by the time she landed the role on The Jeffersons.
Roker had married television producer Sy Kravitz in 1962 and the couple had a son, Lenny, in 1964. You might recognize the name Lenny Kravitz – he’s been a music superstar since the late 1980s.
Roker became gravely ill in 1995 after a battle with breast cancer. Lenny was on tour at the time and paused his career to fly back to Los Angeles to be with his mom. He didn’t have a home in the city so he was staying with music producer Rick Rubin, who was working with Johnny Cash at the time. Kravitz landed in L.A. and went straight to the hospital, where Roker was not doing well. He though he had some time and went back to Rubin’s home to get cleaned up after the long trip. As he arrived at the house, the phone rang and he’s given the bad news that Roxie had passed away at the age of 66. June and Johnny Cash were also staying with Rubin at the time and ended up providing emotional support even though they hardly knew Kravitz.
Franklin Cover played Tom Willis on The Jeffersons, the other half of television’s first interracial couple. In his nearly six decades in show business, Cover appeared on numerous TV shows including The Jackie Gleason Show, All in the Family, Who’s the Boss?, Will and Grace, Mad About You, and E.R. But most people recognize him best from his years on The Jeffersons.
His career started on the stage, where he appeared in a number of Broadway productions including Any Wednesday, Wild Honey, and Born Yesterday. His character on The Jeffersons, Tom Willis, lived with his wife in the same upscale apartment that George Jefferson moved his family into after making his money in the dry-cleaning business.
Cover died in Englewood, New Jersey, in February 2006 after a battle with pneumonia. He had been living at the Lillian Booth Actors’ Fund of America home for the previous 3 months while recuperating from a heart condition.
Paul Benedict played another one of the Jefferson family’s neighbors, Harry Bentley. He was the quirky English neighbor who would occasionally ask George Jefferson to walk on his back to relieve muscle tension. Benedict wasn’t actually English but his performance convinced millions of viewers of the show that he was more British than Jeeves.
He started acting in Boston in the 1960s at the Theater Company of Boston alongside future stars like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman. Pacino remembered his old colleague when he revived Eugene O’Neill’s one-act Hughie on Broadway in 1996. Benedict played the only other character in the play, a hotel clerk who listens to the gambler Hughie as he rambles on for the entire show.
His film career began in the 1960s, when he appeared in films like Cold Turkey, They Might Be Giants, and Jeremiah Johnson. He also appeared in Christopher Guest’s “mocumentaries” Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, and Waiting for Guffman. But for millions of fans of The Jeffersons, Benedict will always be Harry Bentley. He passed away on December 1, 2008 due to natural causes.
Isabel Sanford played Louise “Weezy” Jefferson, one of the two main characters on the show. She started her career as a stage performer in New York before breaking into film with a role in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which she played the outspoken maid Tille.
Her performance in that film laid the groundwork for her role as Louise Jefferson in All in the Family in 1975. She played that role in the spin-off The Jeffersons over the next 10 years. Sanford was the only cast member to win an Emmy for the sitcom. She became the first African-American actress to win the award when she was awarded the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series in 1981.
After The Jeffersons ended, Sanford appeared on other TV shows such as The Carol Burnett Show. She died on July 9, 2004 at the age of 86. She was admitted to the Cedars-Sanai medical center five days before her death after complications from neck surgery she had ten months earlier.
Sanford’s castmates had great things to say about her after her death, saying they always referred to her as the Queen on the show’s set. She loved getting mail from fans and was always amazed and pleased by the show’s longevity.
Sherman Hemsley played George Jefferson, the husband and father of the family for which the show was named. His out-of-touch nouveau riche character made him a star. After the show’s run ended, it continued to play in syndication for years after. Those reruns caused its popularity to surge again years after it went off the air, pushing Hemsley back into the spotlight. He ended up guest-starring on many other popular shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Wayans Brothers, and The Hughleys.
In a 1996 interview, Hemsley told The New York Times that he wasn’t anything like his humorously arrogant character on The Jeffersons. He said he was nothing like him – he didn’t slam doors in people’s faces and wasn’t a bigot. He claimed he was just an old hippie that was all about peace and love.
Hemsley died on July 24, 2012 as a result of a lung mass. Medical experts had advised him to undergo chemotherapy and radiation before he developed “superior vena cava syndrome” which ultimately led to his death.
After he died, it took four months for him to buried because of a dispute between his business manager and a long-lost half brother who each claimed the right to dispose of his remains. While he was buried then, the dispute continued for another two years, when a Texas appeals court finally decided it was best to leave Hemsley’s body where it was buried.
Marla Gibbs played the Jeffersons’ maid Florence Johnston, a role that she received five Primetime Emmy nominations for. She started acting in the early 1970s in movies like Sweet Jesus, Preacher Man, and Black Belt Jones. Marla landed the role of Florence Johnston in 1975 and starred in a short-lived spin-off called Checking In in 1981.
She has said in interviews that Florence was based on her aunt and grandmother. Because she was based on real people in her life, the role came easy to her. She has continued to appear in TV shows in recent years, including Hot in Cleveland, American Horror Story, and This Is Us. She even reprised her role as Florence Johnston in Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons in 2019, at the age of 87.
Berlinda Tolbert played Jenny, the daughter of the Jeffersons’ neighbors Tom and Helen Willis. During the course of the series, she became engaged to Lionel Jefferson, the son of George and Louise. They eventually married on the show and had a daughter.
After the show ended, Tolbert appeared in several films including Harlem Nights, Goodfellas, and Patriot Games as well as television shows like E.R. and Six Feet Under. Her last role was a 2013 short film titled Just Another Man’s Story.