The second Norman Lear-produced TV series to be spun off from All in the Family (Maude was the first), The Jeffersons grew out of a character who appeared on the very first episode of Family -- college student Lionel Jefferson (originally played by Mike Evans), the young African-American friend of Mike Stivic, son-in-law of super-bigot Archie Bunker. To Archie's horror, Lionel's entire family moved across the street from the Bunker home in the spring of 1971, and over the next few weeks, viewers were introduced to Lionel's mother Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), who became the best friend and closest confidante of Archie's wife Edith. Later on, two more Jeffersons made their first appearances: Henry Jefferson (Mel Stewart), Lionel's uncle, who was in many ways as racially prejudiced as Archie Bunker; and, finally, Lionel's father and Louise's husband George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), bombastic owner of a string of dry-cleaning establishments. Ultimately Henry Jefferson was written out of All in the Family, whereupon George "inherited" most of Henry's anti-white attitudes.
In the middle of All in the Family's fifth season, the Jeffersons had accumulated enough wealth to move out of Archie Bunker's blue-collar Queens neighborhood and into a "dee-luxe" high-rise apartment on New York's fashionable East Side. This was the status quo when The Jeffersons debuted Saturday, January 18, 1975, as a mid-season replacement for the failed CBS sitcom Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers (ironically, All in the Family had also premiered as a mid-season replacement). In short order, viewers were introduced to the Jefferson's new neighbors: book editor Tom Willis (Franklin Cover), his wife Helen (Roxie Roker), their daughter Jenny (Berlinda Tolbert), and eccentric Englishman Harry Bentley (Paul Benedict), a translator at the UN. The fact that the Willises were an interracial couple (he was white, she was black) served as grist for the mill of George Jefferson's bigotry and wisecracking humor; meanwhile, Lionel fell in love with the Willises' daughter Jenny, much to the dismay of George but to the delight of everyone else. Other recurring characters included George Jefferson's diminutive but overbearing mother (Zara Cully), who made no secret of her disdain for Louise; Ralph Hart (Ned Wertimer), the doorman of the Jeffersons' luxury apartment building, whose hand was ever outstretched for the tip that George habitually denied him; and Florence Johnston (Marla Gibbs), the Jeffersons' sassy maid, who seldom worked any harder than she had to and whose never-ending battle of wits with the irascible George was one of the series' highlights. (Florence was not a "regular" during season one, and in fact would not graduate to that status for several seasons to come.) Despite its late start, The Jeffersons closed out its first season as the fourth highest-rated program on network television, posting a whopping 27.6 audience share (even higher than that enjoyed by M*A*S*H). ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi