‘All in the Family’ & ‘The Jeffersons’ Live! Inside Recreating & Casting the Episodes
Those were the days, indeed.
TV sitcoms don’t get much more iconic than legendary writer-producer Norman Lear’s thought-provoking All in the Family (1971–79) and its groundbreaking spinoff The Jeffersons (1975–85). And now they’re back — albeit for one night only.
One episode of each (still to be announced as of press time) will be re-created by current stars in the 90-minute special Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons on May 22 (8/7c, ABC), produced by Lear and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.
“It was Jimmy’s idea,” Lear tells TV Guide Magazine. Once Lear — the man known for “changing the face of American television,” per fellow executive producer Brent Miller — heard the pitch, he didn’t think twice about giving his blessing. And signing on: He and Kimmel will host the night, with James Burrows (Will & Grace) directing.
All in the Family featured the Bunkers, a working-class Queens clan led by cantankerous patriarch Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and his “dingbat” wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton). George and Louise Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford) were their African-American neighbors, who, after growing more prosperous, moved on up to the swanky East Side of Manhattan (and their own show).
Both comedies brilliantly pushed the envelope with subject matter that bluntly talked about politics, race, and sexuality, all while earning big laughs from their live studio audiences.
But can any actor today really embody Archie Bunker (O’Connor won four Emmys for the role) or George Jefferson? Woody Harrelson (Cheers, True Detective) and Jamie Foxx (Beat Shazam) are certainly going to try.
“We cast the shows with actors who weren’t asked to resemble the old cast,” Lear says. “They would just play the role how they [want to] play it. Who is Archie Bunker today with Woody Harrelson? I hear myself describe it and I get excited.”
Rounding out the Bunkers are Marisa Tomei (Empire, the Spider-Man franchise) as Edith and Ellie Kemper (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as their headstrong daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers in the original). Her husband, liberal Michael “Meathead” Stivic, played by Rob Reiner, is still to be cast.
For The Jeffersons, comedian Wanda Sykes (black-ish) stars as George’s put-upon wife, aka Weezy. Will Ferrell (also an executive producer) plays the Franklin Cover part of neighbor Tom, and Justina Machado (One Day at a Time) is sassy maid Florence (Marla Gibbs).
The actors, who will rehearse for five days before showtime, just like a typical sitcom schedule, were eager to be part of a Lear ensemble. “They really respect and honor Norman for the stories he delivered then, and how relevant they are now,” says Miller.
While the series wrapped their original runs decades ago, they still resonate. “These shows were very relatable. I knew these characters,” says Sykes. “My parents are like George and Weezy, minus the high-rise apartment.” Adds Lear: “The timelessness of human nature doesn’t change.”
Nor will these scripts. The often-shocking language — like Archie’s racist rants, frequently spewed with a dose of ignorance — remains intact.
“We’re not hiring a single writer. Instead, [we’re] paying homage to the talented writers who [crafted] this material so long ago,” says Miller, who hopes nostalgia buffs won’t be the only viewers tuning in. “How great is it to have the opportunity to introduce [the shows] to new generations?”
Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, Wednesday, May 22, 8/7c, ABC