EntertainmentInside JET


In 1975, a 22-year-old Hollywood newbie named Berlinda Tolbert joined the cast of the groundbreaking sitcom The Jeffersons to play Jenny Willis. She was most recently seen in the 2011 indie flick Last Ride on the Midwest Pacific. Today, she remembers her sitcom days fondly and shares what has been her most rewarding role to date.

JET: How have roles for Black women changed since you first came to Hollywood in the ’70s?

BERLINDA TOLBERT: There are more roles and a greater variety of choices. This wonderful blend of cultures and terrific non-traditional casting wasn’t done back then. There’s also more of a willingness to explore African-American experiences. That’s what’s exciting to me. There is much more room for diversity. Before it was an exception, now it’s more of a staple.

JET: What do you most enjoy about acting?

BT: After seeing me in a play when I was 13, my dad said, “You know, you’re awfully good at this.” I discovered I love telling stories and I still do. I’m a natural storyteller. I love human behavior: the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve had some wonderful people to work with. Actors are my favorite people in the world. The roles that I take are connected to whether the project is something I haven’t done before, and whether it speaks to me and will allow me to stretch.

JET: What was one of your favorite memories from The Jeffersons?

BT: The entire experience is memorable. It changed my life. There is no one component that stands out for me. Every life experience is colored by the people you work with. Norman Lear had a wonderful knack of putting the right people together. There was great regard to individual contribution to the final product. For someone who was just beginning a career at that time, what a learning environment for me to be in. It was that experience that really taught me what I know about television. From the producers to the writers to the crew to the actors— I worked with exciting, creative people. It colored my impressions of the industry in an extremely positive way.

JET: Why is The Jeffersons considered a classic sitcom?

BT: What makes the show so iconic is the subject matter it dealt with. It was the first time in TV history that a show portrayed the offspring of a Black and White union, the first time an integrated married couple was portrayed on national television, and the first time a show centered on a successful Black man with his own set of prejudices.

JET: What’s another career highlight for you?

BT: In the early ’70s, when I was in acting school, Martin Scorsese gave me my first film part in one of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro’s early works. Scorsese is a magnificent director and I have always admired him for his risk-taking. More than a decade later, in 1989, I ran into him when he was receiving the Courage in Filmmaking award. I didn’t think he would remember me, some school kid from years ago. But he didn’t forget; he remembered my name. He spoke to me about the day and night we shot my scenes. Two weeks after that meeting, he reached out to me and said he was working on another movie and wanted me to play Sam Jackson’s girlfriend inGoodFellas. Once I got on the set, I felt like I was at home.

JET: Are you working on any projects now?

BT: I’m taking a temporary break. I don’t have any disenchantment with Hollywood. I wanted to turn my attention to my parents, who’ve been so wonderful to me, at a time in their lives when it’s important to have their daughter there for them. We are a close family. My parents have and still are supportive of me and my work. They continue on the journey with me. They would often visit me during the time I was doing The Jeffersons. Recently, my father became ill and was hospitalized. He did not recover and passed away. My mother is now in her mid-80s and requires medical and physical attention. I make sure all her needs are met.

JET: Has taking a personal hiatus been tough for you?

BT: I’ve only had one job in my entire life… professional actress. I don’t miss acting right now. I have noticed that I get a lot of respect from people because I have chosen to be here to help my parents. And this respect from others is something I never expected would happen. I have come to realize that others are making decisions such as these as well. I love my work and always will and, surprisingly, I also have no regrets. I have only one mom and one dad. I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything.

JET: What are you planning for your comeback?

BT: I haven’t thought about a comeback. I don’t have any anticipation for anything. My focus at the moment is the medical needs and physical concerns of my parents and now, more recently, my mother. While I have been in some discussions about a project over the past three months, I’m not thinking about tomorrow. It’s more about the service I can do today. I’m not 22 anymore. I wouldn’t want to be 22 again. I’m just enjoying the opportunity to service my mother.

JET: Would you like to say anything directly to your fans?

BT: I’d like to thank everyone for supporting The Jeffersons and me for all these years, and showing an interest in what we were trying to do.

  • Willie

    She's still so sexy!

  • Kevin Butler

    With all due respect to Ms.Tolbert's recollections..the character of "George Jefferson"(played by Mr.Hemsley)was not the first black bigoted character on a tv sit com.

    Mr.Redd Foxx was the first black gentleman to play a black bigot on"Sandford & Son".

    • Frank Frazier

      With all due respect to you Mr. Butler, Ms. Tolbert said, " the first time a show centered on a SUCCESSFUL Black man with his own set of prejudices".

      I don't think Redd Foxx's character falls into that catagory.

      • High Crimes

        I agree with you Frank, I was going to post the same response. I have a feeling that Kevin Butler is just "trolling"

    • Nicole

      I think you should re-read what she said…she didn't refer to George's character being a bigot but being successful, she was also referring to the character she played being represented on TV and her parents as an interracial couple.

  • Linda

    I remember watching The Jeffersons when it was originally on CBS. The show ran from the time I was in the first grade and ended production when I was a senior in high school. Norman Lear was truly a master of his craft. The Jeffersons had a terrific cast was well written. Berlinda is a beautiful lady inside and out. Caring for her elderly parents just shows her love, devotion and respect for those who brought her into this world. I have the greatest respect for her! Berlinda is truly an earth angel!!

  • Janice Evans Davis

    It is good to see that Berlinda remains true to her roots in taking care of her parents. We were old high school classmates in Mrs Caples drama class. We remain proud of her from Second Ward High School in Charlotte, N. C.

  • Kandi

    I was watching the episode where George goes to birthing classes with Jenny and I thought about Ms. Tolbert. It is great to hear that she is well. She sounds like a loving person for putting her parents' needs first. Her beauty radiates.

  • JJ Raines

    Great job, Ms. Tolbert. I still watch the Jefferson. For me it was great to an African American female in role that brought you through college to marriage and then single mom. This was typical of a lot of us of the 70's. You played it with such grace and style. Blessings upon your future.

  • Dianne Whitfield

    I still watch The Jefferson's and I have always loved your character!

  • anita

    To mrs. berlind I think you are so beautiful .you did a wonderful job on the Jefferson's .you inspired me so much. I hope you will be acting again soon looking out for you god bles.

  • Erica

    There will never be another sitcom that could compare to the Jeffersons. I watch it at least once a week on DVD. I am waiting until the release of the complete series due on the stand if i am not mistaken in Nov./Dec. I love the Jeffersons 4 Ever.

  • royce skepagny

    U need 2 improve your research or your math skills. Everything I have read on Ms. Tolbert shows her DOB to be 11/4/49, exactly 1 day younger thn the late Mike Evans who played the original Lionel on the show. Tht means she was 25 going on 26 in 1975 whn "The Jeffersons" premiered tht Sept., not 22 as U so incorrectly state. Not tht hard 2 get the facts right if U R willing 2 take the time. Don't mean 2 be pedantic but sloppy journalism really gets 2 me.

    As 4 Ms Tolbert, always wondered if she was biracial like her character or only African-American. Wish U had informed us. Oh well.

  • evelyn

    too bad the "Jeffersons" never got that reunion show, and they has asked for it to come back

  • evelyn

    sorry the Jeffersons never came back on tv like Sherman Hemsley and Esablelle Sanford wanted

  • Mo/Creative Source

    The Jeffersons will always reign radiant for ever – colorizing dignity, pride, class, grace and finesse. All of the actresses and actors were phenomenal and timeless in their character. Most scintillating, the Jeffersons still remain current today, although it was resurrected in the 1970's. Unfortunately, we don't have shows, today of such high caliber. Therefore, this writer feels most elated to compare the Jeffersons to a little boy who threw mud on the moon; yes, the more mud he threw on the moon, the brighter it shined. As a result, it will continue to symbolize longevity for many, many years into the future.

  • Mo/Creative Source

    My heart feels most elated to announce that the Jeffersons were a fantabulous show during the 1970's; most scintillating, it exemplified grace, class, finesse, dignity, pride and forever relevant and also ageless. needlessly to say, the actresses and actors were phenomenal, and also reduced acting to its lowest terms. This show is still cemented in all communities, serving as a catalyst for future generations to model after such wealth of theatrical artics.

  • gloria

    First, I loved Miss Tolbert in The Jeffersons. Second, I loved her in Harlem Nights, had such an outstanding cast. She represents the love of God in putting her career on hold to handle her parents. I watch the Jeffersons every night at 10 on Antenna TV in Washington, DC.

    • D.C.

      omg yes!! I had forgotten it was her in Harlem Nights. She looked STUNNING! Like someone had plucked her from the 1920's. Often people look like they are in "costume"…but she looked so authentic. One of the iconic black female faces of my childhood television viewing.

  • Lynn Crisp

    The Jeffersons were and still are funny. Too sad some of the cast members have passed away, but we all will some day. Hello there Mrs.Tolbert I loved your role. I know how it feels to take care of your parents, its not always easy it just makes you gray headed a little faster but when all is said and done its a great feeling overall to give back all that same love and caring just as it was once given to you when you couldn't do it for yourself……. You will have a blessed future and a knock out come back!! GO GIRL!!!!

  • stefania ghisoni

    Has Berlinda children?

  • Marvin

    Loved Belinda Tolbert when she was a guest on Fantasy Island, she's a great singer. I enjoyed her arrangement of the song , All Of Me, it was beautiul.

  • Yvonne

    God Bless you # Berlinda Tolbert for putting your Parents first!!!

  • Devlin Seven

    as a young white kid in the 70's my family was a little surprised to find my first heart throb was Ms. Tolbert. She is still an awesomely beautiful woman.

    • Paul

      I agree. I felt same way.