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Old 07-22-2008, 09:17 PM   #1
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Lightbulb Damon Evans article - Why he didn't like his role of Lionel on The Jeffersons

Wow! this is a very interesting interview that I found. Damon talks abt him being gay, his dislike for the character that made him well-known and other interesting info. This interview took place in December of 2007, shortly after the death of Mike Evans:

http://www.keithboykin.com/arch/2007...piece_of_the_1

Tuesday, December 4 2007, 12:36AM

I have wanted to interview Damon Evans for years. I met Damon almost three years ago after he contacted me about an article I wrote on this site called "We're Moving On Up." In that irreverent piece, I compared the relationship between President Bush and Condoleezza Rice to the relationship between Tom and Helen Willis of "The Jeffersons."

It was an easy comparison to make because "The Jeffersons" was probably my favorite TV show from childhood. It ranked higher than "Sanford & Son," "Get Smart," "The Avengers," "Man From Atlantis," "Dallas" and "The Carol Burnett Show," all of which I also loved. As a middle-class black kid growing up in the mostly white suburbs of St. Louis, "The Jeffersons" was the closest thing to my life on television. And Damon Evans as Lionel was a key part of the cast. So today, 35 months after I first met him, I finally get to publish my interview with the man himself.

Damon Evans is an American treasure. He's met just about everybody in public life over the past 30 years, and he's seen a number of significant events in history up close during his lifetime. I call him the real life Forrest Gump. But I also realized that there's much more complexity to the man than his starring role on a popular 70s sitcom. That experience that I once thought defined him had, it seems, in many ways trapped him. As it turns out, he's a fascinating untapped talent and resource with extensive knowledge of black history, gay history and American history.

This is the first time that he has "come out" publicly.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

INTERVIEW WITH DAMON EVANS
Keith Boykin: Over the past few years I've gotten to know you as Damon Evans, but many people probably identify you instead as Lionel Jefferson from the TV show "The Jeffersons." I want to start off by talking to you about that. How did the experience on the show affect your life?

Damon Evans: If I had to make that particular choice over again, that is accepting or not accepting the role of ‘Lionel’ and replacing actor Michael Evans, I definitely would have refused the role.

Keith Boykin: Really?

Damon Evans: For the rest of my life the question asked of me will always be "Which ‘Lionel’ are you, the first or the second?" In retrospect, I think it was actually an impossible task to undertake because most people don’t seem to remember that Michael Evans was the first ‘Jefferson’ to appear on All in the Family. Both Weezy and George were cast later. Also, Sherman Hemsley was not the original George Jefferson.

Keith Boykin: Really? I didn't know that either.

Damon Evans: Veteran actor Avon Long was the first George Jefferson, but Carrol O’Connor (a man who I had tremendous respect for despite the fact that I never worked with him professionally) felt that the chemistry wasn’t right between the two of them. The role of George remained vacant for awhile until Jane Murray, our casting director at Tandem Productions, was able to locate Sherman in San Francisco where he was appearing in Micki Grant’s "Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope."


The cast of The Jeffersons included: Franklin Cover (Tom Willis), Roxie Roker (Helen Willis), Berlinda Tolbert (Jenny Willis Jefferson), Damon Evans (Lionel Jefferson, 1975-1978), Paul Benedict (Harry Bentley), Isabel Sanford (Louise Jefferson), Sherman Hemsley (George Jefferson), Zara Cully (Mother Jefferson, 1975-1978), and not pictured: Marla Gibbs (Florence Johnston), Mike Evans (Lionel Jefferson, 1975-1979), Ned Wertimer (Ralph).

Keith Boykin: Wow. I'm learning a lot today. It sounds like you didn't enjoy doing the show. Did you?

Damon Evans: Not really. No! I uprooted myself from a role as a classical music student and was thrust in the public’s eye overnight. Talk about stress and adjustment issues. However, that said, the first year on the show was quite a heady experience. There I was a total unknown one day, and the next appearing on network television in one of the top 10 TV shows on the air. I had not even seen one episode of the show before I took over the part, and the producers discouraged me from ever watching any of the episodes in which Mike had appeared. There was such a marked difference in our interpretations of the role. There we were filming in Television City, which is nothing more then one big building on Fairfax and Santa Monica Boulevard, where CBS production studios were and I was rehearsing next door to the likes of Carol Burnet and Sonny and Cher. I can even remember Chastity Bono running around as a little girl. Then there was Bill Cosby, who happened to visit the set the very first day that I joined the show, and Freddie Prinze who also stopped by every now and again because he was a buddy of Sherman’s.

Losing my anonymity at such a young age was devastating to me. Besides, I was just becoming aware that I was a gay man and the conflict of the expectations of Hollywood and the role of ‘Lionel’ placed me in enormous emotional, psychological, and spiritual conflict with myself. My family, on the other hand, couldn’t have been happier. There I was ‘Lionel’ which was to them the epitome of what they wanted me to be, but ‘Lionel’ was just a role I played as an actor. To this very day, I don’t think they have a clue as to who I really am, and that’s there loss.

Keith Boykin: You mean they don't know you're gay?

Damon Evans: No, they do know I'm gay but they won't accept it.

Keith Boykin: Now you were the second Lionel, right? So did you know the first Lionel, Michael Evans, who passed away recently?

Damon Evans: Right, I was the second 'Lionel' and I never met Mike, although I did meet his mother one Sunday in church during the first year I was doing the show. That is the closest I ever got to meeting and/or knowing Mike Evans, his mother. I always tell people that I am the one without the ‘fro and the one who married Jenny on TV. Sometimes, that is still not enough for some people to differentiate us apart.

Then I remind them that I am the one who started out on Broadway when I was only 20, and had a singing career overseas having sung with classical music conductors Andre Previn, Sir Simon Rattle, John Mauceri, and appearing at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the Royal Opera House in London as 'Sportin' Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and the Netherlands Opera House in Strauss’s Aridne aux Naxos in Amsterdam. I continue to be surprised at how many people are aware of my time performing classical music.

Keith Boykin: Amazing career you've had in so many different areas. I have to ask one more question for the fans, although I know the answer. You're not related to Michael Evans, right?

Damon Evans: No Mike and I are not related. But I must tell you, I was surprised when I learned that Mike and I were born the same year just weeks apart, he November 3rd and I November 24th. I was sitting in the dentist's office when the news of his death came on CNN and originally I thought they were talking about me because all I saw on the screen was his birth date which was in November. I was a Thanksgiving baby.

Keith Boykin: How did you get the job?

Damon Evans: I had already established myself as a responsible young actor with CBS having spent an entire role as a young law student on the soap opera "Love of Life." I was appearing on Broadway in the revival of Kurt Weill’s "Lost in the Stars," starring the late Brock Peters, when one of the casting directors from the network caught my performance and had remembered the picture post card I had sent informing her that I was in the show. An actor by the name of Leonard Jackson passed on that little trick to me. He said, "Let the casting directors know what you are doing, especially if you have arrived on Broadway."

He attended the 1963 March on Washington as a junior high school student and stood directly under the dais where Dr. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech and he witnessed the famous Stonewall Riots in 1969 in New York.
Within weeks after that I auditioned and was in the soap, and subsequently was cast in a two-hour drama called "The Tenth Level" starring William Shatner, Ossie Davis, and Lindsay Crouse, one of my favorite actresses. Once you have a track record with a particular network, company, and/or casting director you automatically are remembered for certain projects, or at least that is the way it used to be. When the call came up for 'Lionel' I must have had two to three agents as well as the network call me for an audition. It was not something that I actively pursued, it just kind of came to me.

Keith Boykin: What were some of your best memories from the show?

Damon Evans: I can recall both the best and worst memories. Well, there was the day I was informed that I had almost been fired because I had done an episode where no one in the audience laughed at anything I did. They had to add a laugh track to make it seem funny on screen. It was Norman Lear who came to my defense and told them to hold off for a few more episodes.

The best memory was within weeks after that incident, after I had worked with a personal acting coach, I did an episode where it was reported that my performance had received one of the longest laughs in the history of the entire show. What can I say, that’s Hollywood? But without a doubt the most positive and memorable experience I had while doing the show was when I was chosen by the producers of the 1977 Tony Awards to appear as a guest host. I had already appeared in four Broadway shows by the time I was chosen for 'Lionel' so it wasn’t that unrealistic that I would have been considered. Still, if I recall correctly, I became at that time one of the youngest co-hosts in the history of that awards show. Plus, I got to sing a big solo "You’ll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel.

Keith Boykin: You know, The Jeffersons was one my favorite TV sitcoms from the 70s. I felt like I could relate to it more than I could relate to other shows like Good Times, which I also liked. But then I remember when The Cosby Show came out in the 80s, some people complained that it wasn't realistic to have a black doctor married to a black lawyer. Did you guys ever get any of those "elitist" complaints when your show was on?

Damon Evans: On the whole I’d say that the reception and response to "The Jeffersons" was pretty positive. I know that the main reason I wanted to do it was because I felt that Norman Lear was educating the public, in a realistic yet very humorous way, about the rising Black middle class and our presence in American society. Not every Black, Latino, and Caribbean family was on public assistance and like the Europeans from the old days we were "moving on up." That is the main significance of the words in that theme song. We "finally gotta piece of the pie!"

So many Americans can still relate to that which is why the show, even in reruns, effects so many people. Recently I was at a reception for Janet Langhart’s and William Cohn’s new book and had the opportunity to meet Dan Rather. I was truly surprised when he had kind words for the show. That is how much of an impact we had on the public, not to mention the magic and talent of Sherman Hemsley, who I will always consider the star of the show even though in print it was Isabel Sanford , who was the first African-American actress to win a well deserved lead actress Emmy (for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1981), and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Keith Boykin: I know you probably get tired of these questions, but what was it like working with Sherman Hemsley? He seems like a real hoot. And what was Roxie Roker like? I always liked her and Marla Gibbs especially. And of course I love [Roker's son] Lenny Kravitz, but that's a different story.

Damon Evans: Even Lena Horne, when I met her, asked me the same question "What is Sherman Hemsley really like?" I had already worked with Sherman in New York on stage with Vinnette Carroll and her Urban Arts Corps. He is without a doubt a phenomenal talent and so much of that show centered and focused around his character. He is the very antithesis of the character George and is very quiet and almost childlike at times. He is deeply spiritual and other worldly at times. He was always and consistently a professional. I have only kind things to say about him.

"I was just becoming aware that I was a gay man and the conflict of the expectations of Hollywood and the role of 'Lionel' placed me in enormous emotional, psychological, and spiritual conflict with myself."
Now, Roxie Roker was my sweetheart and my rock foundation. I knew Roxie’s work from The River Niger because I played next door to her when I was appearing on Broadway in "Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope." Ms. Roker was such a class act and like Sherm, deeply spiritual and very intelligent and open minded. She was a lot like Helen Willis, the character she played on the show. We also went to the same church, The First Church of Religious Science, which I attend to this very day. And, there was her son, Lenny. I remember Lenny as a very quiet, well behaved kid. I can remember one day Roxie came to the show and she said, "I don’t know what we are going to do with him. All he seems to be into is his music."

Keith Boykin: You have such great stories of so many people in the industry. Do you still get recognized for your role in the show?

Damon Evans: Yes, and in the most unlikely of places. I remember my first trip to Milano, Italy in the mid 1980’s when I went there to study opera with the late singer Carlo Bergonzi. I thought to myself, anonymity again, thank God. However, no sooner then I got off at the airport there were these two Italian kids who saw me and started screaming, "Mama, papa, Lionel" (pronounced in Italian Lee-o-nel) and they kept saying it over and over. I had no idea that "The Jeffersons" was a favorite on Italian TV and when I had the chance to watch it, it was such a shock to hear myself speak flawless Italian. The same thing happened to me when I was in London and this lady chased me for about three minutes in the underground to tell me that she watched me on African television. At this point of my life being recognized has become an occupational hazard.

Keith Boykin: Since you left "The Jeffersons," you've done theater, music, teaching and several other things. Tell us about that.

Damon Evans: Well, theater was always my first love as well as music. That seemed like the natural step I would have gone professionally, but I didn't. Upon my return to New York after "The Jeffersons" and playing 'Alex Hailey' in the sequel to Roots (Roots: The Next Generation) which even I forget at times, it seemed like the natural thing to do. I just wish I had done it sooner, but I had no place to go and live because my mother had taken over my apartment and wouldn’t let me in and had gotten the lease changed in her name. But all of that I am saving for my memoirs along with other family secrets.

Keith Boykin: Sounds like a juicy book. But let's talk some more about opera and music.

Damon Evans: I made my debut at the New York City Opera which was then under the leadership of the late Beverly Sills, who I considered a great manager and human being. She was unrelenting to her board when they commissioned and put on the opera X about Malcolm X, by Anthony and Thulani Davis, the brother and sister composer and librettist team. Many members who were on her Board of Trustees were Jewish and objected, but she remained unbowed and stayed committed to the project.

I have sung at Carnegie Hall twice, making my debut with the American Composers Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies and with the Morgan Singers in The Lost in the stars Concert Suite which I have performed several times around the world. I also lived in London for almost 10 years and was nominated for a 'Lawrence Olivier Award' (the equivalent to our Tony Award) for Best Male Actor in a Musical for my performance as 'Joe' which Harry Belafonte role played in the film, in the stage production of Carmen Jones which starred Wilhelmina Fernandez from the movie Diva and which was staged by British actor, Simon Callow, and conducted by the late Metropolitan Opera conductor, Henry Lewis.

I have sung on several recordings which are still in print, most notably the 1992 EMI recording of "Porgy and Bess" which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Opera recording of that year. I am extremely proud of my singing and acting portrayal of the role of 'Sportin’ Life' which reputedly by some people in the business is supposed [to be] "definitive." God, success is certainly not good for the soul, is it? Humility has never been one of my virtues, what can I say?

Keith Boykin: That's fine. If you hadn't said that, a lot of people would never have known. So tell me, how's school going these days?

Damon Evans: Well, as some people may have read or heard on Michel Martin’s program on National Public Radio, I have been working and been in attendance at Bronx Community College for four years now. It has been a most nourishing and productive experience, and I will be forever grateful to Dr. Caroline G. Williams who invited me to return to school.

However, all good things must come to an end, and it is more then time for me to move on and grow and blossom in another setting and to explore other areas of my life, and I am finally ready to do so. Where I am actually headed remains to be seen, although there is nothing I’d love more then to attend a historically black college and/or university that have a minimum amount of homophobia on its campus. That I couldn’t stand, I don’t care what the past reputation of the school may be.

Keith Boykin: Sounds like you have strong convictions. What are you passionate about now?

Damon Evans: I would love to eventually teach college age students. I am seeking a degree in African-American Studies. Some of this history I have already lived. Do you know I attended the March on Washington and as a junior high school student stood directly under the dais where Dr. King recited the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, which I used to perform in oratorical contests in junior high school and high school? In addition, I actually witnessed the famous Stonewall Riots the first night of the rioting itself.

Keith Boykin: No kidding. You were at Dr. King's speech and at Stonewall? How many people can say that? It's almost like you're a real life Forrest Gump.

Damon Evans: Those two things. It was worth a life.

Keith Boykin: Well today we have video and media accounts of Dr. King's speech, but there's not as much known about Stonewall. What was that like?

Damon Evans: Yeah, I watched them. Where the Monser Bar is [now] used to be a bookstore where students from NYU were. That summer I was working as an usher...I must have been 17 or 18 and I walked right into the riots. And I saw it and there were a lot of us who had no idea it was going to change their lives... There was a small minority who were waiting for it....And the next day I remember it all being in the paper, and the significance i remember was 'Wow, gay people stood up.'

But there was such police corruption [back then]. There was so much more...There was so much shame. A black person wouldn't be caught in [some of these places]...But the majority of people who really fought in the riots were the marginals, the black and Latino drag queens, they're the ones who had nothing to lose and said 'No." That's the history that still isn't being told...The Wall Street guy was around a piano bar somewhere afraid...the teachers, you couldn't be a teacher and be gay...it was horrible...

Keith Boykin: So much has changed in the past few decades. What do you think about today's TV shows, especially the black sitcoms that are out?

Damon Evans: I don't. I don’t mean to sound facetious or condescending, but after I had the experience of actually working in television, I didn’t watch it for years. What I see today on network [TV] lacks substance for me, with the possible exception of Grey’s Anatomy, and I say that out of such pride for its producer and cast which shows America that true interracial plot lines can work and have some significant meaning. I am so proud of Shonda Rhimes and Chandra Wilson that I could just burst. The less said about Isaaih Washington, the better.

Keith Boykin: Okay. Let me ask another question. Should black actors take any role they can get to pay their bills, or do you think they have any added responsibility not to take on certain roles that might be demeaning?

Damon Evans: Keith that is a very personal question and can only be answered by each individual actor or actress. I never judge another actor for taking a role regardless of the so-called negative consequences that such a portrayal may incur. I have no idea of what circumstances may motivate someone to take a role which I may find personally insulting. It is not for me to judge anyone but myself.

As I was taught by my step-mom "It is none of your business what people think about you, but it is your business about what you think about yourself." That is it in a nutshell. We all have a personal responsibility for ourselves to do the right thing in our lives, and those values are no one else’s business but you and your God, whoever he, she, it may be.

Keith Boykin: Where did you grow up?

Damon Evans: This is one of my all-time favorite questions. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland where I was born in the famous Johns Hopkins Hospital. I ran around with two other guys in elementary and junior high school: Larry Wilson and Kurt Schmoke, who became the first Black mayor of Baltimore. Some used to call us the Three Musketeers.

Keith Boykin: There you go with that Forrest Gump thing again. Have you ever been married or are you in a relationship? And do you have any kids?

Damon Evans: No I am not married nor am I in a relationship of any kind. I wish I were. However, I am told by my friends that when I stop looking one will come my way. And as for children of my own, that is a privilege I have never had and I deeply regret it. I guess that’s why teaching is so very important for me. I see it as a positive means of passing on some of my values.

Keith Boykin: I also know you've read this site from time to time. Tell us how you found out about it.

Damon Evans: This is really the thing about even meeting you. There had been no articulate intelligent black voice talking about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community ever that I know of that was as clear as you...about what we go through in the church, what we go through in the community. Believe it or not, I screamed Hosanna when i read your first book...And i couldn't believe it...the first time i came across your website there was an article called "Movin' on Up'...That was my first time on your website and there was that...

But you had a definite impact upon me in the form of my own liberation, in the fact that, 'God these young people are so much more accepting of themselves than I was in my generation and the generation before.' I can remember going away to boarding school...my last year, my only year ,and coming back and asking about a certain friend and finding out that he had committed suicide...I just thought that you were a gift.

Keith Boykin: Thank you so much. I would love for you to go on and on about me, but I have a few more questions about you. [Laugher] What's next for you?

Damon Evans: I'm going to be transferring to a 4-year. It'll either be in January or February. Where? I don't know. I wanted to take sort of a sabbatical off to take care of some personal things...I'm definitely going to get my bachelor's in African American studies. And you know what, I don't even know if I'm going to teach. A degree is something I've always wanted...but I've certainly enjoyed this sojourn so far.

Keith Boykin: And how do you want to be remembered?

Damon Evans: One of the things I've learned as a result of being a student and working in the writing center with students there is that we all have come where we are because of an endless chain of activists who stood up and said "Enough, its time for a change." And if I could in any way do that through my television work, the music I've done, the work in the classroom, whether as a student or a teacher…that I instill in people that there's a history, a legacy that has taken us to a place that we take for granted, and that we should honor that legacy and pursue positive change.

Keith Boykin: Okay, one last question. What advice would you offer to others who want to follow in your footsteps?

Damon Evans: Don't forsake their values to their ultimate goal. Because once you get there you'll find out that there is no there there. And most of all, you don't have yourself when you get there. Don't forsake values.

Keith Boykin: Did you forsake your values?

Damon Evans: I heard Gladys Knight say this, that we all get lost in the maze of materialism, but there's a greater force if you believe in it, that brings us back home. Let's just say this, I've taken detours but I always come back home.

Keith Boykin: And that's a perfect place to end. Thanks for doing the interview Damon. Please stay in touch.

Damon Evans: Thank you.
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Old 07-22-2008, 09:31 PM   #2
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That was a great article. Thanks for posting it. I hadn't heard from Damon Evans in years. It was like he vanished.
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Old 07-22-2008, 09:42 PM   #3
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Anytime.
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Old 07-22-2008, 11:22 PM   #4
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Very interesting read - thanks for posting it, Irene. I also recall that Damon Evans was part of a Jeffersons reunion article in the People Magazine 20th anniversary issue in 1994. I wish him nothing but the best.
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Old 07-22-2008, 11:24 PM   #5
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Great interview!!! Thanks for posting that!!!

I wonder what happened with his mother??
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Old 07-22-2008, 11:32 PM   #6
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You are welcome.
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Old 07-23-2008, 12:13 AM   #7
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Wow, had no idea he was gay
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Old 07-23-2008, 12:37 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by KingofTVResearch
Wow, had no idea he was gay


Me either, talk about shocking.
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Old 07-24-2008, 12:14 AM   #9
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I was shocked too folks.

Damon sounds like he is grateful overall, for at least the recognition he gets from the show and realizes he played a part in one of the most successful shows of all time. How many other shows can say they made it past ten years? Not a lot. Sounds like he is doing well and is happy with his life.
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Old 07-24-2008, 12:33 AM   #10
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Yeah, I was shocked when I read that too.
He sounds like a pretty self-aware, down-to-earth person, a very accomplished person!! I'm happy to hear that he's doing well!! I know I said I didn't like him as Lionel, but that was only because I had seen Mike Evans as Lionel first...it's kind of like the two Darrins on Bewitched...if there hadn't been two, I wouldn't have anyone else to compare the 2nd Darrin to.
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Old 07-25-2008, 11:53 AM   #11
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^^^I agree, I was used to Mike Evans playing Lionel. Though at times I like Damon's work playing Lionel.
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Old 07-26-2008, 04:32 AM   #12
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I always preferred Damon Evans to Mike Evans as "Lionel" personally. Damon always seemed more mature and responsible as "Lionel" but when Mike Evans was "Lionel," "Lionel" seemed to be nothing more than an immature playboy who just wanted to avoid growing up. But that's just my humble opinion.
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Old 07-26-2008, 12:19 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LoveMrsG
I always preferred Damon Evans to Mike Evans as "Lionel" personally. Damon always seemed more mature and responsible as "Lionel" but when Mike Evans was "Lionel," "Lionel" seemed to be nothing more than an immature playboy who just wanted to avoid growing up. But that's just my humble opinion.
Great post. I can see what you mean. When Jenny is pregnant, Lionel (Mike Evans) storms out of the apartment because he'd rather watch the football game than deal with choosing baby furniture etc. What a big immature baby he was to do that. Be a man and make decisions regarding your newborn!
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Old 07-26-2008, 05:27 PM   #14
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I thought that Mike was stupid for leaving because he thought that his part wasn't big enough...But I still liked him WAY better than Damon. Damon acting wasn't up to par for me.
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Old 07-26-2008, 05:31 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Brieannas21
I thought that Mike was stupid for leaving because he thought that his part wasn't big enough...But I still liked him WAY better than Damon. Damon acting wasn't up to par for me.


Well can you blame him? His Role on All in the Family was BIGGER than his role on the Jeffersons.
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