Question: Help me out here. I'm a big fan of The Jeffersons and I always thought the first actor who played Lionel left because of a swelled head, then came back when his solo career didn't take off. But my brother insists it was so that his brother could take over. Who's right?
Answer: Why, you are, Brenda, assuming you mean Mike Evans, who played young Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family and then on its Jeffersons spin-off. He left because of an inflated sense of self rather than a bump on the noggin. However, it's probably nicer to say he suffered from the inexperience of youth rather than to tar him with the ego brush. Of course, the actor himself took it a step further in 1980 and told TV Guide he was darned near certifiable to leave. "I was getting crazy," he admitted. "Even somebody who doesn't know why he is sick knows he is sick. So I don't say I was committable I just knew I was very uncomfortable and I needed to be doing something else. So I did it."
That he did. Evans, who joined All in the Family's cast in 1970 as the son of Bunker neighbors George (an initially unseen character until Sherman Hemsley came onboard) and Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), suffered from a disease that afflicts many a young talent when fame comes calling: sudden stardom syndrome. And it was All in the Family and Jeffersons creator Norman Lear who saw it coming and chose to be charitable when discussing his memories of Evans' conduct after the fact.
"It was a lot of success to take very quickly," Lear said. "Mike began to have a difficult time with himself. He complained about the amount of material written for him, about how strong his character was or wasn't. I saw a young man who was having difficulty with his own success not a new phenomenon. Part of my memory is that he was being given poor advice. He was steered incorrectly to assume he was much more important than he was on the show, and to make demands that were not about to be acceded to. There must have been somebody telling him we couldn't do without him."
At a wrap party, Evans asked Lear if he could leave the show, and his request was granted on the spot. Damon Evans (no relation) took over from 1975 to 1978 and the audience never knew the difference as far as the ratings went. Evans' only acting during that time was a small role on Danny Thomas' The Practice. He tried his hand at a few different businesses raising dogs, remodeling and reselling houses but he returned to the series after Hemsley went to bat for him with the producers. Again, Lear played the mensch: "If there's anything this company understands, it's that people grow, just like characters grow; in life they don't stand still. And that's why, when Mike said he was ready to come back, we were happy to have him."
Of course, Lear was used to waiting on his actors from time to time. After all, the reason George was discussed but never seen on All in the Family after his family moved in for two seasons it was explained on the show that the cranky dry-cleaning entrepreneur refused to stoop low enough to meet racist Archie Bunker (Carol O'Connor) was because Lear and his team couldn't find the right man for the part. (They first tried Avon Long in the role, but it didn't work out.) Lear remembered seeing Hemsley on stage in Purlie three years earlier but couldn't remember his name. After an exhaustive effort, producers finally found him in San Francisco. "I thought they wanted me for Sanford and Son, Hemsley recalled in 1982. "I called. Lady named Sylvia O'Gilvie answered the phone. 'Don't move!' she yelled, like I was a criminal or something. 'We've been looking for you everywhere.' Anyway, they flew me down.... When I needed bread later, Lear loaned me his credit card."
From there, Hemsley became known to the public as the irascible George, the Jeffersons were blessed with their own series in January 1975, and they stayed on the CBS schedule for just over a decade. The show regularly turned in respectable ratings, climbing to as high as the No. 3 spot for the 1981-82 series. Now that's what I call movin' on up.