When I heard that Philadelphia native, Air Force Veteran and famous Emmy award nominated TV Actor Sherman Hemsley died, I thought of one of my favorite episodes of the Jeffersons “Change of a Dollar” (1983) . Its a narrated episode (a la Twin Peaks or Desperate Housewives) except the narrator is a dead president: Jefferson’s Cleaners first dollar of revenue. It fits this description of the Jefferson’s from The Onion AV Club:
But while the show focused plenty on satirically exploring whatever social malady was being tossed around in the writers’ room that week, over time the sharp comedic interplay between the actors—particularly the darts lobbed between Hemsley and Marla Gibbs’ withering maid Florence—shaped the show into a more farcical and character-driven affair, with Hemsley seamlessly shifting from jerk to underdog to sympathetic, loving family man, often within the same episode.
The episode starts with the Jeffersons and the Willises celebrating an award ceremony where Tom Willis will be mentioned for helping to discover a now successful writer who’s won an award named “the shaft”. George tears down his effete neighbor Tom on the night of his big award on the way out while promising to make the award ceremony on time and then rushes all the way from the east side to his original Queens store to “check out everything”.
Then the episode flashes back to the opening day of the store. While setting up wine and American Cheese wrapped singles for their opening day, George links his hopes and dreams for his family to his new business:
George: “I wanna do it for Lionel, I wanna send Lionel to college so he don’t have to scrape like we do! and you know what I’m gonna do for you Weezie? I’ma buy furs, i’ma buy diamonds, I’m a buy you expensive cars…”
Weezie: “oh george, you don’t have to do that!”
George: “Okay, but remember I offered!”
George actually does go on to promise Weezie a maid and a “deluxe apartment in the sky” and then he makes his wife half owner of his business. George wants to suceed so his family can do better than him and better in the future. Lionel in college, Weezie being served instead of serving others. We see why George makes Weezie part owner: whenever he is discouraged by their slow start, he is shored up by Weezie telling him that he will succeed. He knows he is there with her and she’s been there through and through, his word and dedication being enough.
After pitching Jefferson Cleaners to anyone who listens, the first customer Mrs. Colby arrives.
She is intent on giving new businesses a shot.
Mrs. Colby: “Light on the starch, blouse in a box. You do a good job for me and I’ll tell all my friends about you”
George: “Well Mrs. Colby, I hope your very popular.”
Really Mrs. Colby is recognizing the honest effort of another human being. She’s rewarding effort and risk whereas everyone else who has walked by Jefferson’s cleaner was to busy to consider them.
15 years later, Mrs. Colby returns as she has every Thursday since she gave Jefferson’s Cleaners a chance, but instead of bright and early, she comes under the cover of night, after close, obviously indigent. Jefferson welcomes Mrs. Colby into the store and has her clothes ready for her to pick up and treats her like the same Mrs. Colby for a moment every Thursday. He reciprocates Mrs. Colby’s dignity just like, years early, she afforded a hungry new businessman the same when everyone else pretended they didn’t exist.
Above all we well remember that walk: a bouncing, shoulders-back, cuffs-shooting, South Philadelphia strut: “We used to practice these walks when I was growing up,” he recalled. It was a kind of armor and an expression of attitude, he said, as if to say, “Yeah, it’s me.”
Hemsley and Isabel Sanford (Weezie) made the Jeffersons iconic characters who were culturally black as ever but stronger characters every episode so that even a heavy handed episode like this one was worth more than the story it told. But some of the best George Jefferson appearances were from “All in the Family” where Bunker and Jefferson’s shared love of bigotry and insults left them living relics of the way things used to be. The best example of Bunker and Jefferson’s prejudice is “Lionel’s engagement Party (1974)”:
George: Bunker, what is this world coming to?
Archie: Beats me Jefferson. All I got to say is: here’s to yesterday.