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Farewell and Thank You to Norman Lear

By Charmaine A. Nelson


Now that the second decade of the twenty-first century is well underway, I’ve gained increasing clarity on what was distinct about my Canadian upbringing in an immigrant family from Jamaica. I grew up a child of the 70s outside of Toronto in a suburban town in Durham region long before anyone used the term GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and decades before Dick Wolf thought to expand his legendary Law and Order TV franchise to Toronto. My childhood memories feature combinations of typical “any-parent” routines and decidedly Jamaican parent cultural influences. Alongside many of the neighbourhood children, my older sister and I were “latchkey” kids, tasked from a young age with returning the short distance home after school and at lunch time to prepare our own meals. (How my parents thought it was ok for us to have access to the stove at that age is beyond me! But that was exactly how many 70s parents rolled.) I ran to every corner of the neighbourhood, in and out of parks, friends’ homes and backyards, hopping fences and creeks with joyous abandon. I had responsibilities – like babysitting – that were definitely beyond my age and experience. My life was, blessedly, not as over-scheduled and over-supervised as those of kids today and I was told to come home “when the streetlights came on”.

Meanwhile, as a first-generation, Caribbean-Canadian family, our household seemed always full of an assortment of Jamaican and other Anglo-Caribbean Aunties and Uncles who just happened to drop in unannounced after work, before bedtime or just as our family was sitting down for dinner. Although my young life was in many ways devoid of the restrictive boundaries that protect, guide, and insulate, it was also full of love, joy, laughter, music, and colour. It was also a culturally rich life defined by my parents’ Jamaican roots (the reggae music courtesy of my father and the food and self-care courtesy of my mother) and life-defining African American TV sit-coms, largely courtesy of the incomparable Norman Lear.

Born in 1922 in New Haven and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, Norman Milton Lear passed away at the age of 101 on December 5, 2023. Lear cemented his legendary Hollywood career as a TV writer and producer by making groundbreaking white family TV sitcoms like All in the Family (1971-1979), Maude (1972-1978), and One Day at a Time (1975-1984) with memorable characters, daring political commentary, and timely social insights, much of which would unfortunately be too direct and honest to make it onto TV screens today in an age of pearl-clutching, virtue signalling, cancel culture (from the political left and right). Clearly, Lear understood the source of the comedy in his politically- and socially-relevant shows, friction. To Oprah Winfrey in an in-depth interview in 2023 he stated, “you get sparks from rubbing two sticks together.”

Lear was celebrated for his accomplishments with lifetime achievement awards from the Producers Guild of America and the Television Critics Association. Lear was also one of the first inductees in the Television Academy Hall of Fame (1984), received a National Medal of Arts (1999), and became a Kennedy Center Honoree (2017).

Among his most acclaimed shows was Sanford and Son (1972-1977) which centred the father and son duo of Fred (played by the legendary Redd Foxx) and Lamont (played by Demond Wilson) who lived an economically challenging life from their South-Central Los Angeles home in a “junk yard”. Fred’s deceased wife Elizabeth was also a constant symbolic presence in the show since he frequently called out her name in distress while faking heart attacks to gain Lamont’s sympathy. Much of the humour emerged from Lamont’s exasperation with his aging father and what he saw as Fred’s uncouth ways and lack of class. From the beginning of the show, Lamont displayed a desperation to escape their difficult class circumstances. In season 1, episode 1 entitled Crossed Swords, Lamont purchases a ceramic artwork from an elderly white female former silent movie star in Beverly Hills, taking pains to explain to his father why the small porcelain sculpture has considerable value. As he relates the story of his purchase, Fred interrupts his narrative with comedic insights. When Lamont describes the old, negligée-wearing white lady from whom he purchased the piece, Fred interjects to exclaim “ain’t nothing uglier than an old white woman!” In the process of trying to sell the work at a fancy auction house, Fred mistakenly bids against Lamont resulting in the pair having to pay to take home their own piece, after which Fred accidentally and disastrously breaks the sculpture. Although generational and class struggles often injected tension into their relationship, their foundation was one of obvious love and devotion.

Fred and Lamont Sanford (Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson)


With Good Times (1974-1979) Lear gave us the two-parent Evans family headed by James (played by John Amos of Roots 1977, Coming to America 1988, Men in Trees 2006-2008, and Coming 2 America 2021) and Florida (Esther Rolle previously of Maude), who parented their almost-grown children with lots of love and a healthy dose of take-off-the-belt discipline from James. While middle daughter Thelma and youngest son Michael were more down to earth and stable, James “J.J.” Evans Jr. (played with scene-stealing abandon by Jimmie “J.J.” Walker), provided the comic relief often delivered with his catch phrase, “dyn-o-mite”. Despite their residence in a Chicago public housing complex riddled with infrastructure and social problems, importantly, the show made it clear that James and Florida’s marriage had a solid foundation of love, respect, and passion, and that they were united in raising healthy children who would contribute to and change a society defined by racial and class disparities which were readily apparent in the modest state of their front room where much of the show’s action took place.

“J.J” Evans Jr. (Jimmie “J.J.” Walker)


Education was paramount in the Evans’ home and Michael, disciplined, studious, and Black-Power-political, represented the family’s hopes to transcend their socially-depressed situation. In a powerful episode called “The I.Q. Test” after Michael returned home and revealed that he had failed a school I.Q. test because he refused to write it to protest its racial bias, James and Florida rushed to the school board to intervene on behalf of their son. The united front of the two black parents demonstrated a shared knowledge of their son’s intelligence and a shared belief in his character and promise. Together, they teamed up to humorously “school” the white, statistics-obsessed school official subjecting him to a Black I.Q. test (which he fails miserably) demonstrating why the traditional (meaning white) I.Q. test was racially biased against their son and all of the school’s black children.

Cast of Good Times


But as with any great artist, Lear’s work was not without controversy. As J.J Evans popularity grew, so too did internal (from other cast members) and broader social complaints that his character too closely approximated dangerous black stereotypes. Lear had already planned to diversify his depictions of black people with other more affluent characters that he had developed as the neighbours of Archie and Edith Bunker in All in the Family, the Jeffersons. And, as he revealed to Winfrey, it was around that time that the Black Panthers came knocking to discuss his representation of black men. Lear’s inspired philosophy of comedy emerging from friction was never more clearly revealed than in the combative and hilarious interactions between Archie Bunker and George Jefferson.

Thus while the Evans family was dreaming of a better life from their apartment in a depressed Chicago neighbourhood, with The Jeffersons (1975-1985), Lear gave us a black family who had already achieved that dream. The show featured George (played by Sherman Hemsley), his wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) , their adult son Lionel (played at different times by Mike Evans and Damon Evans), and the cantankerous Mother Jefferson (played by Zara Cully), a family that had already – as the unforgettable theme song goes – “moved on up” to a “deluxe apartment in the sky” on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan, NYC. (By the way, that song was performed by Ja’net DuBois who played Florida’s close friend Willona Woods on Good Times.) The show’s shift in the class terrain opened a wealth of possibilities and scenarios for the characters as they explored the contours of their new, more materially comfortable lives which of course, as black Americans in a racist, white-dominated society, also made for more discomfort. Not to be overlooked, much of the comedy came from the fiery interactions between George and their mouthy black housekeeper, Florence Johnston (played by Marla Gibbs). Indeed, although the new world of the Upper Eastside was geographically close to their humble begins in Harlem, it was worlds away from their previous lives in terms of class.

Cast of The Jeffersons


The show explored the straight-talking, prestige-loving, ever-ambitious, class-driven George, the owner of a dry cleaning franchise, and Louise his wife (and conscience) as they adjusted to their new financial status and its social and cultural ramifications. In the tradition of other storied comedies like The Flintstones (1960-1966), which featured Fred and Wilma, Louise was George’s conscience, pulling him back from the brink, time and again, when his drive led to questionable decision making and moral lapses.

George and Louise Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford)


One early episode called “Louise is bored” unfolds around Isabel Sanford’s character -affectionately called “Weezy” by George – as she comes to define and explore the boredom that she felt since being liberated from a traditional paying job due to the success of Jefferson Dry Cleaners. It is hard to overstate how talented this cast was. Sanford who became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series (Quinta Brunson became the second in 2024 for her role in Abbott Elementary) had a long career on stage which began at the American Negro Theater in 1946 and made legendary Hollywood films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) alongside Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Roy Glenn, and Beah Richards. Hemsley was no slouch either! He breathed a fiery, dynamic energy into George that was across the board unforgettable from his brash comebacks, defiant posturing, practiced scowl, cocky walk, and soulful dance moves.

It is hard to overstate how radical it was for Lear to create a role like Louise Jefferson for a black female lead in the 1970s at a time when almost every other black woman on TV was represented as impoverished, devoid of the support of a loving husband (financial or otherwise), and reliant on a paycheck from her own work outside of the home. Instead, Louise, unburdened financially by the success of their business, was set on the quest of exploring her personal desires for fulfillment which eventually led, across episodes and seasons, to her transformative work in a local help centre with her best friend Helen Willis (played by the talented Roxie Roker, the real life mother of the gifted musician Lenny Kravitz).

For George’s part, while much of the humour came from his verbal sparring with their quick-witted, wise-cracking housekeeper Florence, another constant source of humour was George’s internal battles for respect, power, and recognition, which emerged from his quest for financial stability for his family. This dynamic was abundantly on display in season 1, episode 5, entitled “Mr. Piano Man”. In it, George (ever calculating about business) agrees to host a tenants’ association meeting to organize protests against the building’s owner only after he surmises that the evening will benefit him by allowing him to regale a fellow tenant, H. L. Whittendale (head of Whittendale National Bank), with the details of Jeffersons Dry Cleaners to gain his business. Wanting to look the part of a well-to-do businessman, George insists that he and Weezy purchase a piano in time for the party to impress Mr. Whittendale. But when the wrong piano – a baby grand that is far too large for their luxurious apartment – is delivered erroneously while George is at work, it makes the apartment look cramped and by implication, George surmises, it makes him and Weezy appear uncultured. Incredulous, George confronts Florence about the glaring error, asking her why she accepted the delivery of a piano that was obviously too large for their apartment. Florence’s snappy reply?  After considering that only a crazy man would have ordered a piano that large for an apartment of that size, she recalled that she worked for Mr. Jefferson and told the delivery men to “bring it on in honey!”

Florence Johnston and George Jefferson (Marla Gibbs and Sherman Hemsley)


Like Good Times, issues of race and racism took centre stage on The Jeffersons, and they were not sugar-coated or dumbed down to make them more palatable for the audience. As a black man who had experienced economic hardships and successes, George was unafraid to express his strong dislike and distrust of white people. This frequently emerged in his interactions with white people like the neighbour Harry Bentley (played by Paul Benedict), the doorman Ralph Hart (played by Ned Wertimer), the bartender Charlie (played by Danny Wells), and the married couple who eventually came to be George and Weezy’s best friends, the cross racial couple Helen and Tom Willis (played by Franklin Cover) who lived in the same apartment building. Tom and Helen were parents to another main character, their mixed-race daughter Jenny (played by Berlinda Tolbert), who eventually dated and married the Jefferson’s son, Lionel. George most often referred to the white Tom disparagingly as “honky” and he frequently expressed his dismay at the Willis’ cross-racial family and suspicion at the generally good-natured Tom’s motives and actions.

Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker)


The legacy left by these brilliant shows is hard to quantify. They shifted the way non-black populations saw and understood black families, intelligence, ambition, and potential and provided hope, laughter, and joy for black American and diasporic populations. Without these shows there would have been no Cosby Show (1984-1992), no Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, (1990-1996), no Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006), and no Black-ish (2014-2022).

Although at the time I was too young and untutored to understand the game-changing, culture-shifting impact of what I was watching, it was indeed a blessing to come of age in Norman Lear’s world of black American characters and families.