Who is Roxie Roker?
Roxie Roker was an American actress, probably best known for her role as Helen Willis in the CBS sitcom “The Jeffersons”, which aired from 1975 to 1985. Her character was half of an interracial marriage, and represented a significant milestone in the representation of such relationships on American television. In addition, Roxie made numerous appearances in other TV shows and movies. She was also the mother of renowned rock musician Lenny Kravitz. Roxie passed away in 1995.
Early Life and Education
Roxie Albertha Roker was born on 28 August 1929, in Miami, Florida. The only child of parents of Bahamian descent, Roxie was raised in the multi-cultural neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, which fueled her appreciation for diversity.
Roxie discovered her interest for the performing arts during her teenage years. She pursued her passion, and furthered her education at the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in drama, studying under renowned teachers Owen Dodson and Anne Cooke Reid. She also shared the class with the fellow future actors Zaida Coles and Graham Brown, as well as playwright Shauneille Perry, among others.
Parallel to her studies, Roxie was also a member of the Howard Players, her university’s theatre troupe, which performed across the US and Europe.
Following her graduation, Roxie began her acting journey by joining the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City. This company was a remarkable platform for black actors at the time, providing a vital space to explore and express their talents. Roxie quickly gained attention and started appearing in various stage productions. Her first significant break came in 1974 when she was cast in a Broadway production of “The River Niger”, which earned her a Tony Award nomination.
In the early 1970s, Roxie also made a name for herself on TV, as a reporter on the New York-based station WNEW-TV, and host of the public affairs show “Inside Bed-Stuy”.
In 1974, Roxie made her film debut with a supporting role in the romantic comedy-drama “Claudine”, which followed the love story of a single mother of six, and Roop, a garbage collector.
The Jeffersons actress Roxie Roker and her then husband, NBC News producer Sy Kravitz, with their son Lenny Kravitz.
Roxie’s breakout role came in 1975 when she was cast as Helen Willis in the CBS sitcom “The Jeffersons”, which aired for 11 seasons through 1985. The show was a spin-off from another popular sitcom, “All in the Family”, and was developed by television producer Norman Lear. The premise centered around Louise and George Jefferson, a prosperous African-American couple, who moved from the working-class neighborhood of Queens to a luxury apartment in Manhattan, after the success of George’s dry cleaning business.
The show was groundbreaking for its time, featuring a successful African-American family, which was a departure from the typical roles and narratives assigned to Black characters on television during that era. The show was a consistent hit over the course of its run, and is remembered as one of the most successful sitcoms of its era. Its memorable theme song, “Movin’ on Up”, is a well-known piece of pop culture, and the characters have become iconic figures in TV history.
In addition to addressing issues of race and class, the show was also noteworthy for featuring an interracial couple, Tom and Helen Willis, played by Franklin Cover and Roxie, respectively. As half of the first interracial couple featured prominently on prime-time TV, Roxie found herself at the epicenter of a cultural shift. With her thoughtful and genuine portrayal of Helen Willis, Roxie became a trailblazer, breaking down racial barriers and helping to normalize interracial relationships in the media landscape.
During the series run, Roxie’s character became an integral part of the show. Despite the initial apprehension about how audiences would react to an interracial couple, the characters of Helen and her on-screen husband Tom were well-received.
26 years ago today, Roxie Roker passes away at the age of 66. Lenny Kravitz is her son, and Al Roker is her cousin. pic.twitter.com/tCWgtVdU62
— Miles Commodore (@miles_commodore) December 2, 2021
While “The Jeffersons” was certainly her most well-known role, Roxie was far from a one-hit-wonder. Concurrently, Roxie made numerous TV appearances, in shows such as “All in the Family” (1975), “Roots” (1977), and “Fantasy Island” (1982).
In 1987, she had a role in the sci-fi comedy “Amazon Women on the Moon”, a spoof of 1950s sci-fi cinema and late-night TV. In the following years, she had guest-roles in a number of TV series, including “1st & Ten” (1987), “Murder, She Wrote” (1991), and “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper” (1993).
Roxie’s last role was in the 1995 short comedy “Statistically Speaking”, which starred Shaun Baker and Victoria Dillard.
Beyond her professional endeavors, Roxie was a devoted mother and wife. She married the television producer Sy Kravitz in 1962, which similar to her “Jeffersons” character, was also an interracial marriage, with her husband being white. Interestingly enough, when she auditioned for the role of Hellen, the producers didn’t believe that she seemed like someone who would marry a white man – until she sent them a picture of herself with her husband.
Roxie and Sy had a son, Leonard Albert ‘Lenny’ Kravitz, who would follow his mother’s artistic footsteps, becoming a Grammy award-winning rock musician.
Roxie’s life was cut short by breast cancer in 1995. She died in her home in Los Angeles, California at 66 years of age. Following her death, Lenny released the song, “Thinking of You”, dedicated to his mother.
In her lifetime, Roxie played a pivotal role in changing societal perceptions and representations of interracial relationships on American television. Her performance in “The Jeffersons” was more than just an acting role – it was a societal statement that questioned, challenged, and ultimately helped reshape the narrative around race and love in America. Her work as an actress continues to inspire and influence generations of actors who have come after her.
In addition to her acting, Roxie was known for her philanthropic work, particularly as a children’s advocate. She was a board member of the Inter Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, a non-profit organization that is still active to this day, and helps fight for the rights of children served by the Child Welfare System.