ABC’s live re-creation Wednesday night of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” achieved something rare in prime-time network television: It was fun to watch, pure and simple.
It was great entertainment to watch these mostly A-list actors take up roles that are so iconic and make them their own -- or not make them their own, as happened more often than not in this unusual telecast.
Titled (at great length) “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’,” this 90-minute show re-created verbatim (at least for the most part) one episode each of these Lear sitcoms. They were followed by a 30-minute special “Nightline” that served as a “backgrounder” on the original shows.
Leading off the evening, Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei played Archie and Edith Bunker in “All in the Family,” the roles made famous by Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton. Ellie Kemper played their daughter Gloria (formerly Sally Struthers) and Ike Barinholtz played her husband Mike (formerly Rob Reiner).
Also appearing in the “All in the Family” episode were Sean Hayes as neighbor Frank Lorenzo (originally Vincent Gardenia) and Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes as George and Louise Jefferson (pictured above), the Bunkers’ next-door neighbors (originally played by Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford).
They were two of only three performers who appeared in both re-creations Wednesday night. The other one was Jovan Adepo, who played their grown son Lionel (originally Mike Evans and then Damon Evans -- no relation to the first Lionel).
In the “Jeffersons” episode that followed, other featured performers included Will Ferrell and Kerry Washington as the Jeffersons’ apartment-house neighbors Tom and Helen Willis (originally Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker). Jackée Harry played the Willis’ housekeeper Diane and Stephen Tobolowsky played their English neighbor Harry Bentley (formerly Paul Benedict).
A very nice surprise was the appearance of Marla Gibbs, 87, one of the last surviving cast members of either show, turning up to reprise her role as the Jeffersons’ housekeeper Florence Johnston. She and Jackée were co-stars in another great African-American sitcom of the 1980s, “227.”
Everyone seemed to have a great time, and they each took to their roles with professionalism and diligence. Most of the performances amounted to straight-up impersonations of the originals, while others seemed to seek their own interpretations, however slightly.
One of the latter was Kemper as Gloria. She adopted a voice that did not seem to simply parrot the tone of her predecessor. By contrast, Marisa Tomei's performance of Edith amounted to a very skillful imitation. And so was Woody Harrelson's portrayal of Archie.
Did they come close to the originals? Of course not -- Jean Stapleton and Carroll O’Connor gave performances that might still rank as the finest ever seen in the history of television. They will be Edith and Archie Bunker forever.
Not that impersonation in this telecast was a bad thing. On the contrary, to play George Jefferson, Jamie Foxx evidently decided he would not only impersonate the character, but he would also impersonate Sherman Hemsley playing the character. And in the process, he stole the show.
While the entire 90 minutes amounted to a very fun way to spend an hour-and-a-half watching television, the scenes in which Foxx was seen playing Sherman Hemsley and George Jefferson were especially electrifying.
Foxx even fumbled his lines during the “All in the Family” segment and broke through TV’s “fourth wall” to address the audience and joke about it. At other moments, some of his fellow castmates, such as Harrelson, had to visibly struggle to maintain their composure and not burst out laughing as he cavorted before them.
Foxx played George Jefferson like he might have played him in a satirical setting such as the old “In Living Color” sketch-comedy show on which he first became famous. In many ways, his performance amounted to a loving tribute to Hemsley, whose comic acting may have served as an early influence and inspiration for the young Foxx.
Not to be outdone, Wanda Sykes also deserves commendation for her spot-on performance as George's wife “Weezy.”
This re-creation project seems to have been a joint venture of ABC late-night star Jimmy Kimmel and Lear, both of whom appeared as co-hosts for the evening. Kimmel mentioned at least twice that Lear is 96 years old.
In the TV Blog's humble opinion, this project was a great success. On Thursday morning, ABC reported that 10.4 million people watched, according to the Nielsen overnights. That bodes well for future re-creations. Jamie Foxx as Redd Foxx in “Sanford and Son,” anyone?