The days when families crowded around the TV together to watch sitcoms have become a thing of the past, what with the dominance of reality TV and the ability to watch whatever you want on your personal devices. During sitcoms’ heyday in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, primetime was filled with positive and affirming Black characters on series enjoyed by viewers of all races. In many cases, unbeknownst to most watchers, the African-American characters on these shows were played by actors of Caribbean birth and descent.
How many of your favorite sitcom stars have Caribbean roots? A lot more than you think.
Best known as Sanka from Cool Runnings, Jamaican-American actor Douglas “Doug E. Doug” Bourne starred in the short-lived and semi-autobiographical sitcom Where I Live, set in Harlem. Though the show, which aired on ABC Friday nights in 1993, lasted for less than a season, it’s notable for being the only network TV series in the US to show an explicitly Caribbean-American family. Trinidadian actor Sullivan Walker—who played Dr. James Harmon, one of Cliff Huxtable’s doctor buddies on The Cosby Show—co-starred as Doug’s hard-working father. Doug E. Doug would have a longer run as the character Griffin onCosby, Bill Cosby’s post-Cosby Show series from the late ’90s.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs was a big deal in the ’70s. He starred in Cooley High, appeared inRoots, and recorded a pair of disco albums. On Welcome Back Kotter, he played Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, part of the “Sweathogs” crew along with a young John Travolta’s Vinny Barbarino, and the original “Juan Epstein.” Raised in NYC, Hilton Jacobs was the fifth of nine children born to Hilton and Clothilda Jacobs of St. Thomas, USVI.
Like a lot of actors, Garcelle Beauvais made her TV debut with a one-off role on Miami Vice. Since then, the Haiti-born beauty, who got her start as a model for Clairol and Calvin Klein, has had a varied career spanning prime-time dramas (NYPD Blue, Franklin & Bash), movies (Coming to America, White House Down) and even music videos (she was the chick R. Kelly and Mr. Biggs fought over in “Down Low”). But to this day she’s probably best remembered as Francesca “Fancy” Monroe, Jamie Foxx’s love interest on his late ’90s WB series.
Everyone remembers Geoffrey, the British butler with the genteel demeanor and witty wisecracks from Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Few would guess that the real-life Geoffrey wasn’t originally from England, but actually St. Lucia.
On ’90s series Sister Sister, Tia and Tamera Mowry played Tia Landry and Tamera Campbell, twin sisters reunited as teens after being separated at birth. In real-life, the twins grew up together in Germany and the States with parents John Mowry, a Caucasian Army sergeant, and Darlene Renee Mowry, a security guard originally from the Bahamas. Both returned to sitcoms as adults: Tia spent six seasons on The Game, and now stars on Nickelodeon showInstant Mom. Tamera appeared on the short-lived ABC Family show Roommates, and currently co-hosts syndicated talk show The Real.
The mother of Lenny Kravitz and cousin of Al Roker played Helen Willis, one half of TV’s first interracial couple (and antagonist to Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson), on the classic ’70s series, The Jeffersons.
It seems like almost everyone on Fresh Prince of Bel Air were from the islands in some respect. Trinis in particular seem to have been well represented: all three Banks kids have Trini connections, including “Ashley,” Tatyana Ali, the child of a Panamanian nurse and a former cop from T&T. Like former castmates Alphonso Ribeiro and Nia Long, Tatyana waves the Trini flag proudly, returning often to her father’s island for Carnival.
Maahhhhhweeeeeeee! Yeah, we didn’t know Jackée was Trini, either–we always figured the North Carolina-born, Harlem-raised actress for a full-on Southern belle. As man-crazy Sandra Clark, Jackée became the unexpected star on ’80s series 227 (originally written as a vehicle for Marla Gibbs) thanks to her scene-stealing mixture of sexiness and silliness. She’s joined the cast and made cameos on numerous sitcoms since, with her most notable post-227 role coming as Lisa Landry, as the adoptive mother to Tia Landry (Tia Mowry) on Sister Sister.
Damn, damn, daaamnnnn. As Florida Evans on Good Times, the often-depressing series about a loving but unlucky family that just can’t make it out of the projects, Esther Rolle delivered one of the most famous phrases in sitcom history. (After learning of the passing of her husband James Evans, played by John Amos). Rolle, who had previously played the Florida Evans role on Bea Arthur’s show Maude (from which Good Times was spun off), grew up in Miami’s large Bahamian community, one of 18 children born to parents from Nassau.
No actor with Caribbean roots had a better run on primetime TV than Alfonso Ribeiro, the Bronx-born son of parents from T&T. After starting his television career dancing in a 1984 Pepsi commercial with Michael Jackson, Alfonso brought his moves to a supporting role on the already-popular Silver Spoons, replacing Jason Bateman as Ricky Schroeder’s best friend. (Around this same time he also appeared in commercials advertising a how-to book on breakdancing that have taken on their own life in the Internet era).
The role of Ribeiro’s lifetime however would come in the ’90s as Carlton Banks, Will Smith’s cardigan-wearing, Tom Jones-obsessed preppie cousin. The result was one of the most iconic TV characters of the ’90s, and a rare example of a child actor smoothly transitioning into a more mature (even if not fully adult) role. Carlton is one of those characters one can never quite live down, as evidenced by the inevitable appearance of “The Carlton Dance”during Ribeiro’s current run on Dancing with the Stars.