Sunday, August 14, 2022

Roxie Roker


I've been wanting to do this particular post for a while, as the story of my visit to her grave is one that I love to tell.  Whenever someone asks me some version of "what's your favorite grave," this one invariably comes up.

Roxie Albertha Roker was born in Miami, Florida, on August 28, 1929.  She was the daughter of Al Roker (see Trivia below), a porter originally from The Bahamas, and Bessie Roker, a maid from Georgia.  Shortly after her birth, the family relocated to Brooklyn, New York.

From an early age, Roker was interested in the performing arts.  After completing high school, she attended Howard University in Washington, DC, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Afterwards, she returned home to New York, where she joined the Negro Ensemble Company, and began a successful career on the Broadway stage.

It was also during this time that she married television producer Sy Kravitz.  In 1964, the couple welcomed their first and only child, future pop star Lenny Kravitz (right). 

In 1974, she made her first acting appearance on television in the made-for-TV movie Change at 125th Street.  Just one year later, she was cast in the role for which she is most famously remembered, that of Helen Willis on The Jeffersons (below). Roker stayed with the series for its entire eleven-year run, making television history in the process.  She and co-star Franklin Cover portrayed the first interracial couple in a primetime television series.

When the series concluded in 1985, Roker was in the process of divorcing Sy after more than twenty years of marriage.  She continued acting on TV during this time, making the obligatory appearances on The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote.  She also made a guest appearance on the NBC sit-com 227, starring her Jeffersons co-star Marla Gibbs.  On the big screen, she appeared in the 1987 cult comedy classic Amazon Women on the Moon.

By the early 1990s, Roker's health was in decline.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer, which ultimately took her life on December 2, 1995.  She was just 66 years old. 

Roker was returned to Miami and laid to rest with her mother, Bessie. 

Location: Southern Memorial Park
East Court #2, Lot #19, Gr #2B

In 2012, this blogger went to Miami on a grave expedition.  The city is the final resting place for many Hollywood notables, including Jackie Gleason, Leslie Nielsen, and Roker.  I made my way to Southern Memorial Park, but locating Roker's grave proved to be a challenge.  I don't often ask staff for assistance, as they can be reluctant to provide information on famous graves.  However, this day I lucked out.

When I went to the main office, I met a woman in her mid-20s and asked her for directions to the grave.  When she asked me the name of the deceased, I sheepishly replied "Roxie Roker," and to my great relief, the name didn't register.  Not only did she give me directions to the grave, but she also offered to drive me to it in one of the cemetery's golf carts.  This was too good to be true.

We got to the grave, which as you can see, bares her married name of Roxie Roker Kravitz.  It was at this point that the young woman made the connection, asking me if Roker was related to Lenny Kravitz.  "Why yes," I replied.  "This is his mother."  I further explained that this was Helen Willis from The Jeffersons.

My host could not have been more surprised.  Not only was she a huge Lenny Kravitz fan, but she was also watching The Jeffersons on cable.  I pulled out my phone, played the theme song on YouTube, and we recreated the dance from the intro.  I don't normally dance at one's grave, but this was not to be passed up.  

As I left, I gave my host some parting advice - keep an eye on this grave.  One day, Lenny might show up.

Rest in peace.

  • Roxie's second cousin is long-time NBC weatherman and Sharknado star Al Roker.  He was named after Roxie's father.

  • In the early 1960s, Roker hosted a Brooklyn public affairs TV series called Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Check out this episode on YouTube.

  • In 1974, Roker won an Obie Award and a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway show The River Niger.

  • According to Roker, during her audition for The Jeffersons, producer Norman Lear felt that she didn't look believable as an African-American woman married to a Caucasian man. In response, Roker showed Lear a photo of her husband Sy Kravitz (Caucasian) and was immediately hired.

  • The character of Helen Willis originated in the classic All in the Family episode "Lionel's Engagement," played by actress Kim Hamilton.  Check out this clip on YouTube. (Note: the original 1970s language is intact.)

  • After his mother's passing, Lenny recorded the tribute sone "Thinking of You," the video for which included a photo of Roker.  Check it out on YouTube.

  • Roker's co-star Isabel Sanford was also profiled here at Six Feet Under Hollywood.

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