George Jefferson

For the American athlete, see George Jefferson (athlete).
George Jefferson

George (front) with wife Louise and son Lionel.
First appearance "Henry's Farewell"
(on All in the Family)
Created by Norman Lear
Portrayed by Sherman Hemsley
Gender Male
Occupation Dry-cleaner
Family William T. Jefferson (father)
Olivia Jefferson (mother)
Henry Jefferson (brother)
Ruby Jefferson (sister-in-law)
Raymond Jefferson (nephew)
Jessica Jefferson (granddaughter)
Maxine Mills (sister-in-law)
Jason Mills (nephew)
Julie Williams (niece)
Jenny Willis Jefferson (daughter-in-law)
Harold Mills (father-in-law)
Spouse(s) Louise Mills (1952)
Children Lionel Jefferson (son)

George Jefferson is a fictional character played by Sherman Hemsley on the American television sitcoms All in the Family (from 1973 until 1975) and its spin-off The Jeffersons (1975–1985), in which he serves as the program's protagonist. He is the only character to appear in all 253 episodes of The Jeffersons.

Character overview

George Jefferson was born in Harlem in 1929, an ambitious African-American entrepreneur who started and managed a successful chain of seven dry cleaning stores in New York City. The only background on the Jefferson family is that they were Alabama sharecroppers. In a very early episode, George's wife Louise makes mention of a conversation she had with George's father after she and George were married about the Jeffersons family roots. However, the show's writers later applied a retroactive change in the continuity of George's father, such that he had died when George was 10 years old. This left George to take care of his mother; therefore, George was unable to complete high school. He was a cook in the US Navy during the Korean War. He began dating Louise when they were teenagers and married her upon his discharge from the navy.

Before the Jeffersons' store opening, the family lived in a derelict section of Harlem. George had worked as a janitor, and Louise as a housekeeper (in one episode, as Louise says that the building's white janitor was properly referred to as a "custodian", George says: "Well, whenever a man of our race has that job, he is a janitor!").

George's brother Henry Jefferson, played by veteran character actor Mel Stewart, appeared in All in the Family during the lead-up to the spin-off of The Jeffersons. That character was created only because Sherman Hemsley was starring in the Broadway musical Purlie and not yet available to take on the part of George. Once Hemsley became available and joined the cast, the character of his brother became extraneous, and a result, Henry Jefferson never appeared on The Jeffersons. Henry's absence was attributed to his family's move to Chicago, but was mentioned one time when he had a son named Raymond (played by Gary Coleman), who came to visit his aunt Louise and uncle George in one episode of The Jeffersons.

During All in the Family, Jefferson lived in a working-class neighborhood in the borough of Queens, next door to the Bunker family, with his wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) and son Lionel (Mike Evans). During the period between 1971 and 1973, George's perpetual absence was explained as being a result of his refusal to set foot in his bigoted neighbor Archie Bunker's home, although in later episodes relationships between Jefferson and Bunker thawed somewhat. When the spin-off series The Jeffersons began in January 1975, George and his family had moved "to a deluxe apartment in the sky" on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Like his neighbor Archie Bunker, George Jefferson was frequently opinionated, rude, bigoted, prone to scheming and not particularly intelligent in a scholastic sense, but still a loving, hard-working father and husband. Unlike Archie, however, George was more quick-thinking, and usually more clever. Frequently, plots in The Jeffersons revolved around George's usually dishonest schemes, which always ended in comedic failure. In one 3rd season farcical episode {A Case of Black and White}, George schemes to obtain a new client (a mixed-race couple) by inviting them and the Willises (also a mixed-race couple) to dinner. When the Willises realize that George is using them, they leave before the new client shows up. This makes George bribe Florence the maid and Ralph the doorman into pretending to be the Willises. Eventually the Willises return, and by pretending to be Florence and Ralph, they help George land the client, while trapping George into throwing them an extravagant anniversary party.

Like Archie Bunker, George Jefferson's personality softened as years passed. By The Jeffersons series finale in 1985, the frequent racism and interracial marriage plot-lines of early seasons were replaced with plots involving the Jeffersons' family life, as well as interactions with maid Florence (played by Marla Gibbs) and neighbors. George would form a grudging friendship with Tom Willis.

Helmsley appeared as George twice on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, appearing along with Isabel Sanford as Louise, debating whether or not to buy the house Will Smith's character had lived in for the last several years from his aunt and uncle in the later episode.

Jefferson Cleaners

The third episode of All in the Family explained how George Jefferson started his dry-cleaning business. George Jefferson's son Lionel explains that the family used a $3,200 (around $18729.00, adjusted for current inflation) insurance settlement from a car accident to start Jefferson’s Cleaners. Season one , episode nine (3/15/75) indicates it was a $5,000 (22,621.57 in 2015) whiplash settlement from the City of New York. A Christmas flashback episode, which featured Sherman Hemsley playing his character's father, explained how he got the idea to open a dry cleaning business as a child after his father told him that dry cleaning was expensive. This episode also showed how George had been involved in money-making schemes since childhood, with him working as a shoe-shine boy and paying a schoolmate to push people into mud puddles, forcing them to get their shoes shined. He started his opening his business in 1968 in Queens, earned enough money for three years to move into the suburbs of a working class neighborhood of Queens in 1971. Over the two years George made enough money to start a chain of dry cleaning stores with locations in Manhattan as well as Queens. With that, George and Louise have enough money to move on up from Queens to Manhattan and left Queens in style with a limousine in an episode in All in the Family season 5 to a deluxe penthouse apartment and live the life of luxury.

George Jefferson’s chief business rival was Gil Cunningham, with whom George had a considerably antagonistic relationship. Later in the series, after Gil Cunningham died, the Jeffersons discovered that Gil never desired to be enemies with George. It was revealed that Gil's wife (played by future L.A. Law star Susan Ruttan), had been the motivator behind this competition all along. In his will, Gil left George the bowling trophy he won vs. Jefferson Cleaners, with a letter inside warning George to never trust her because “she put the ‘cunning’ in Cunningham.” Gil was later proven right as Mrs. Cunningham, under the guise of still grieving over his passing, stole the idea from an ad campaign George was devising for Jefferson Cleaners, which stated that for every pound of laundry a customer would send in to be cleaned, they would be reimbursed one dollar. But in the end, after finding Gil's letter, George turned the tables on Mrs. Cunningham by bringing her all of the laundry from all seven of his cleaning stores and thereby forcing her to pay him a dollar for every pound, which amounted to $10,000.

A later season of two episode "flashback" episode of The Jeffersons depicted the day the very first Jefferson Cleaners store opened for business, which happened to be the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968; however, this contradicts the previous history established during All in the Family 's first season (in early 1971), where Lionel announced that his parents had just started their own dry cleaning business with money his father had received in a disability settlement. The second episode is Change for a Dollar, where George and Louise start their grand opening of Jefferson's Cleaners.

All in the Family appearances

The following is a list of All in the Family episodes featuring George Jefferson before and during The Jeffersons.

Season Four

Season Five

Season Eight

Cultural impact

The lingering cultural impact of the George Jefferson character is such that Michelle Obama, the wife of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, referenced George Jefferson in a June 2008 interview with the New York Times. Referring to an unfounded rumor discussed by a blogger that she had once used the word "whitey" in a speech, Michelle Obama told the Times: "You are amazed sometimes at how deep the lies can be . . . I mean, ‘whitey’? That’s something that George Jefferson would say."[1]


  1. Michael Powell and Jodi Kantor (2008-06-18). "Michelle Obama Looks for a New Introduction". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
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