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.