Seeing Double - Actors Who Play Multiple Characters in Norman Lear Sitcoms
Television of the 1970s was filled with familiar faces, recognizable actors who made the rounds in sitcoms, dramas, and movies-of-the-week. They may not have been household names at the time (or ever), but you knew them when you saw them.
Producer Norman Lear took this one step further. If you watch his iconic ‘70s sitcoms like All In The Family, Sanford And Son, and Good Times — weeknights on getTV, of course — you’ll notice many of the same faces popping up a lot. Often, they’re reliable performers Lear called upon time and time again to play different characters, sometimes different characters on the same program. And sometimes they’re a performer with star potential who Lear tested out with an eye toward the future.
“Like a ballplayer who comes up in the bush leagues and somebody says, ‘Oh, (he or she) is a candidate for the majors,’” he told the Archive of American Television in 2009. “We tried to cast that way.”
Beginning with All In The Family in 1971 — which remains the TV sitcom with the most spin-offs — Lear hired supporting actors with potential and gave them their shot. Sometimes they got their own show right away, like Bea Arthur with Maude. Sometimes it took a little longer, like when Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford and Mike Evans spun off into The Jeffersons. And in a few notable cases, an actor appeared in a small role on one show before starring on another.
In a sense, Lear used the Hollywood system of the 1930s and ‘40s — where each studio had a stable of actors — as a model. He (and his casting team) created an unofficial stock company of talented performers and kept hiring them again and again. And, in a few notable cases, he gave actors other opportunities to be creative.
By our math, there are at least 50 recognizable actors who appeared in more than one role in what we’ll call “The Lear-verse.” Here’s are ten standouts who did double (or triple, or more) duty.
1. John Amos
Amos has a complex history with Lear. First, he was cast as Fred’s buddy Luther on the Lena Horne episode of Sanford and Son in January of 1973. A month later, he showed up on Maude in the newly created role of Henry Evans, husband of Florida (Esther Rolle). Then, he and Rolle spun off to Good Times in February of 1974 with his character renamed James. Lear fired him from Good Times in 1976 due to creative differences, but the two reconciled in 1994, when he starred in Lear’s short-lived All In The Family spinoff 704 Hauser. Amos is still with us at age 79 and busier than ever. (3 roles, 4 shows)
2. Demond Wilson
Demond Wilson made his first appearance in The Lear-verse as Horace, a thief who breaks into the Bunker house in October of 1971 (with hilarious Cleavon Little as his partner). He took on the role of Lamont Sanford on Sanford And Son the following January. Wilson (mostly) retired from acting after starring in The New Odd Couple with Ron Glass in 1982 and became a minister. (2 roles, 2 shows)
3. Mike Evans
Evans was the second actor Lear cast as Lionel Jefferson, after D’urville Martin played him in two unsold pilots in 1968 and ‘69. Then Lear gave Evans his big break as a writer when he hired him to co-create Good Times in 1974. Evans joined the cast of The Jeffersons when it spun off in 1975 but left after 8 months to pursue writing. He returned in 1979, quit again in 1981, and made his last appearance as Lionel on the 1985 series finale. Sadly, he died from cancer in 2006 at age 57. (1 role, 3 shows)
4. Ja’Net DuBois
DuBois joined The Lear-verse in 1972 as Fred’s old flame Juanita on Sanford and Son. A year later, she was cast as sassy neighbor Willona Woods on Good Times. When Esther Rolle quit Good Times in 1977 — for the same creative differences that had forced Amos out — DuBois became the top-billed lead, only to revert to sidekick when Rolle returned for the final season. An accomplished Broadway musical performer, DuBois also co-wrote and sang the iconic theme song to The Jeffersons in 1975. She’s still with us today and worked as recently as 2016. (2 roles, 3 shows)
5. Charlotte Rae
Before she was Mrs. Garrett on The Facts Of Life, Charlotte Rae made two appearances in The Lear-verse. In November of 1974, Rae guested on All In The Family as Mrs. Henderson, a Tupperware saleslady. Seven weeks later she played Mrs. Rogers, the department store personnel manager on Good Times. Fun fact: her boss in that episode was played by Dick O’Neill, who also appeared on Maude and Sanford And Son (twice). Rae died in 2018 at age 92. (2 roles, 2 shows)
6. Ron Glass
Glass made six appearances in The Lear-verse. In 1972 he played a cardsharp who scams Fred on Sanford And Son. Five months later, he was a refrigerator delivery man on the All In The Family episode “Everybody Tells the Truth.” In October of 1973, he was a furnace repair man on Maude. A year later, he appeared on two different Good Times episodes in the same month, first as Michael’s principal, then as an encyclopedia salesman. Finally, he returned to Sanford And Son as Lamont’s ex-con friend in 1974 before landing the career-making role of Det. Harris on Barney Miller a year later. He died in 2016 at age 71 after a busy, 40-year career. (6 roles, 4 shows)
7. Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson is a ‘70s sitcom standout. He played five roles in the Lear-verse, most notably flamboyant gangster “Sweet Daddy” Williams on Good Times between 1976–79. On All in the Family he was Whitey Monroe, Archie’s co-worker in the episode where he has a dalliance with a waitress. In 1976 he made the most of a small role as an exasperated Western Union man who delivers Fred a telegram on Sanford And Son. His final appearance was as George’s employee on The Jeffersons. He was also the lead in the short-lived Sanford And Son sequel series Sanford Arms (produced by Lear’s partner Bud Yorkin). Wilson died from a stroke in 1991 at the age of 47. (5 roles, 4 shows)
8. Sorrell Booke
He’s best known today as Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard, but Booke also played three bosses in The Lear-verse. He made his first appearance in 1972 as the general manager of the TV station where Archie does an editorial on All In The Family. Two years later, he returned for the first of four episodes as Archie’s supervisor Mr. Sanders. (His final appearance is on the bar’s opening night, when Archie quits.) And then he played J.J.’s boss on the infamous 1978 Good Times episode where he dreams he’s white. He died in 1994 at age 64. (3 roles, 2 shows)
9. Raymond Allen
Allen in the rare actor who had recurring roles on two different Lear shows at the same time. In March of 1974 he made the first of eight appearances on Sanford And Son as Aunt Esther’s husband Woodrow, aka “Woody the Wino.” A month later, Allen took on the role of the Evans family’s perma-plastered friend “Ned the Wino” on Good Times. And in 1978 he appeared on The Jeffersons as a character who reveals a secret while drunk. Are you sensing a theme? Allen retired from acting in the 1980s, but he’s still with us today at age 89. (3 roles, 3 shows)
10. Gregory Sierra
What’s the last thing Fred Sanford wants next door? Another junk dealer. And that’s exactly what he gets when New Yorker Julio Fuentes moves in in 1972. Sierra played Julio for 12 episodes of Sanford And Son over three years (until he joined the original cast of Barney Miller in 1975). Sierra also played the activist who offers to help Archie when a swastika is painted on his door in 1973, and he appeared on the All In The Family spinoffs Gloria in 1983 and 704 Hauser in 1994. He’s 82 today and still working. (4 roles, 4 shows)
11. Bonus! A few more…
Burt Mustin, elderly Mr. Quigley on All In The Family (3 roles, 2 shows); Kim Hamilton, the original Helen Willis on All in the Family (6 roles, 5 shows); Helen Martin, “Weeping Wanda” on Good Times (6 roles, 3 shows); Mel Stewart, Henry Jefferson on All In The Family (3 roles, 3 shows); Thalmus Rasulala, Florida’s handsome boss on Good Times (6 roles, 4 shows); Roscoe Lee Browne, Archie’s hospital roommate on All In The Family (5 roles, 4 shows); Robert Mandan, the auctioneer in the Sanford And Son pilot (5 roles, 3 shows); and Robert Guillaume, the doctor who sees Archie when he breaks a chain letter (4 roles, 4 shows).