by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Think of him as the “Borat” of the 1970s.
Mike Evans, the actor who passed away last week of cancer at age 57, was best known for his portrayal of Lionel Jefferson, the young African-American neighbor of Archie Bunker on the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family.” Thirty years before comedian Sacha Baron Cohen began using the Borat character to expose racism and antisemitism through humor, the Lionel Jefferson character did likewise, with Archie Bunker as his foil. Evans’s untimely passing helps remind us how far America has come –and how far we still have to go– in the fight against bigotry.
Cohen’s Borat is a dimwitted Kazakhstani journalist who naively shares his antisemitism with ordinary Americans and thereby brings their bigotry to the surface. Evans’s Lionel would briefly adopt a faux-Steppin Fetchet voice and personality when he found himself in dicey situations with Archie. While Archie’s daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) grimaced at Lionel’s apparent pandering, Lionel adopted the role of the stereotypical subservient and semi-articulate black with whom Archie, growing up in the 1930s, felt comfortable. Meeting Archie on his own territory enabled Lionel to draw out Archie’s most bigoted comments and at the same time ridicule them in a brilliantly understated way. Evans played the role to perfection.
Humor, whether the Lionel Jefferson brand of the 1970s or the comparable but raunchier Borat style of our own time, can be an effective way to combat racism and antisemitism. There is no doubt that Mike Evans and his All in the Family costars played an important role in discrediting ethnic prejudice in American society. But humor alone could never adequately tackle such a severe problem. There is much more that should be done to combat bigotry.
Consider the mixed response to the slew of racist or antisemitic remarks by celebrities this past year.
Don Imus, comedian and host of MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning, said in his November 30 broadcast that the “Jewish management” of CBS Radio –his former bosses– were “money-grubbing bastards.” Not only is Imus still on the air; his antisemitic outburst was barely noticed or condemned.
The antisemitic outburst by actor-director Mel Gibson was widely noticed and condemned, but it’s not clear if there will be permanent consequences. A few Hollywood figures said they would never again work with the man who had ranted about “Jews causing all the wars in the world,” but prominent colleagues of his, such as Patrick Swayzie and Jodie Foster, loudly denied that Gibson was antisemitic. Already there is plenty of “forgive and forget” talk in Tinseltown as Gibson’s latest movie emerges as a possible Academy Award nominee.
By contrast, former “Seinfeld” comedian Michael Richards is unlikely to make a comeback following his racist comments about blacks, and publisher Judith Regan was quickly fired by Harper Collins Books after she was reported to have made remarks about a “Jewish cabal” targeting her for trying to publish O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It” book.
Donald Trump was quoted, in a December 23 interview with the New York Times, saying that Richards and Regan “made irredeemable mistakes.” Indeed they did, although it’s a pity Trump didn’t see bigotry as irredeemable when it reared its ugly head on his own hit television show, NBC’s The Apprentice. Two seasons ago, contestant Clay Lee said on camera that a colleague was stingy because he was “a tight Jewish boy,” yet Trump declined to fire him for his bigotry.
The season before that, contestant Jennifer Crisafulli railed, on camera, about “old Jewish fat ladies”; Trump did fire her, but not because of her antisemitism, which he didn’t even mention in the debate about whether to fire her. By contrast, Crisafulli’s real-life employer, the real estate agency Prudential Douglas Elliman, fired her as soon as it learned of her antisemitic remark.
There should be zero tolerance for bigotry in the workplace and in the entertainment industry alike, because what is tolerated on the job, on television, and in the movies helps shape the process by which American society determines the threshold for what is acceptable in public discourse.
Mike Evans helped raise that threshhold. Throughout his Hollywood career, Evans played many characters, and was a television writer and creator as well. But he will justly be remembered most for his superb portrayal of Lionel Jefferson, the young man who educated the American public even as he entertained it, discrediting bigotry through ridicule and helping to make this world a better place.