'The Jeffersons': Whatever Happened to the Principal Cast?

Updated on October 5, 2018
Rachelle Williams profile image

This article is a part of my Melanin Arts series, which is dedicated to the achievements and contributions of artistic people of color.

Because many of us simply adored the 1980s classic TV sitcom The Jeffersons, I thought it might be interesting to comb through the Internet to discover whatever happened to the principal cast of The Jeffersons. So without any delay, here we go!

Isabel Sanford (Louise Jefferson)

Sanford was already a veteran actor before she won the role of Weezy Jefferson. She was an accomplished Broadway actress for over 30 years before moving to Hollywood. As soon as she arrived, she quickly won roles on Bewitched, The Mod Squad,The Carol Burnett Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Kojak, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, The Parkers, and many more TV shows.

She also had a prominent role as Tillie, the housekeeper in the legendary classic film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) alongside Sydney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Hepburn.

For her role on The Jeffersons, she won an Emmy in 1981, thus making her only the second black actress to win a Primetime Emmy Award. She was also the first black actress to win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

Her final performance was a voice-over of an animated version of herself on The Simpsons episode "Milhouse Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

Following complications from a serious surgical procedure, Isabel Sanford passed away on July 9, 2004; she was 86 years old. She was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

If you've ever watched the opening theme to The Jeffersons and wondered why Louise was crying in the cab when she should have been happy to be "movin' on up," watch the video below, and wonder no more...

Sherman Hemsley (George Jefferson)

Before appearing on The Jeffersons, Hemsley was known mostly to theater lovers. He was more prominent in musicals and stage plays. Hemsley worked steadily after the show's cancellation, largely typecast in George Jefferson–esque roles.

He went on to star in Amen alongside black actors Clifton Davis and Ana Marie Horsford, which would turn out to be another successful TV sitcom with a predominantly black cast. The show ran for five years.

Hemsley found success yet again with a four-year run in a voice-over role as Bradley P. Richfield, a character from the ABC live action puppet series, Dinosaur.

In 2011, he reprised his role as George Jefferson for the final time, along with Marla Gibbs as Florence Johnston, on Tyler Perry's House of Payne.

On July 24, 2012, Sherman Hemsley died in his home in Texas at the age of 74. The cause of death was attributed to a complication associated with lung and bronchial cancer. Hemsley is laid to rest at Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, the city he loved.

Marla Gibbs (Florence Johnston)

Marla Gibbs has had a long career in Hollywood dating back to the early 1970s where she was cast in blaxploitation flix. She won the role of Florence Johnson on The Jeffersons in 1975, and she has enjoyed a busy acting career since the show's demise over 30 years ago.

Immediately following The Jeffersons, Gibbs went on to another successful series where she played the lead actress in the NBC sitcom 227 alongside Jackee Harry, Hal Williams, a teenage Regina King, and Helen Martin. On 227, she played the role of Mary Jenkins for five years from 1985 to 1990.

She went on to supporting roles in popular TV shows, from a reunion with Sherman Hemsley as Florence and George on both The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Tyler Perry's House of Payne, to a stint on American Horror Story: Hotel, with many other roles in between.

Marla Gibbs is divorced. She has thee children and she is the younger sister of actress Susie Garret, who played the character Betty Johnson on the 80s TV sitcom Punky Brewster.

As of the time of this writing, Marla Gibbs is 87 years old. She is alive and well and she recently appeared in an episode of Blackish. She's currently in pre-production on several projects, including Spiderman: Reinforcements

Zara Cully (Mother Olivia Jefferson)

Zara Cully was only around for the first three seasons of The Jeffersons, but boy did she make an impact with her character as Mother Jefferson!

Cully started her career back in the 1940s as she produced, wrote, and directed plays in New York City. Shen then moved on to Edward Waters College, which is an HBCU in Jacksonville, Florida. There, she became known as the "Dean of Drama" and she was also well respected for her flawless elocution.

By the time her role in The Jeffersons was presented to her, she had already racked up a long list of acting credentials that spanned half a century. She first appeared as Mother Jefferson in an episode of All in the Family, and she carried the role over into the spin-off.

Zara Cully died of lung cancer on February 28, 1978, in Los Angeles at Ceders-Sinai Medical Center. She was 86 years old. There was never an episode that solely addressed the death of Mother Jefferson, but it was mentioned on an episode entitled "Homecoming," which aired on September 27, 1978, seven months after the actors death.

Zara Cully was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.


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