Though Mike Evans was roundly known to 1970s prime-time devotees as Lionel Jefferson, the scion of dry-cleaning entrepreneur George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) and his wife, Louise (Isabel Sanford), on producer Norman Lear's The Jeffersons (1975-1985), the bulk of his career actually spanned three hit '70s sitcoms, all created by Lear: All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. Evans then parlayed his efforts into prime-time miniseries before fading from the limelight in the '80s and '90s.
Born Michael Jonas Evans on November 3, 1949, in Salisbury, NC, Evans moved to southern California with his family during childhood, and studied acting at Los Angeles City College after high school. Not long after Evans graduated from LACC (in 1971), the socially conscious mega-producer Lear cast the young man as Lionel Jefferson, the son of bigoted Archie Bunker's next-door neighbors George and Louise Jefferson, in his groundbreaking CBS series All in the Family. The program, of course, became a massive runaway hit during the summer of 1971, and carried its success until the fall of 1983. By 1975, however, Lear decided to "spin off" George and Louise into a series of their own, by having up-and-coming entrepreneur George strike it rich in the dry-cleaning business.
The Jeffersons premiered on January 18, 1975, but Lear used Evans as an element to help viewers transition between the two series -- by keeping Lionel on All in the Family for several months (the character moved temporarily into his parents' old house in Queens, and thus stayed next door to Archie Bunker). Evans remained with the series until the fall of 1975, and departed amicably to pursue other interests -- specifically, an assignment co-creating (with Eric Monte) and scripting one of Lear's other sitcoms, Good Times (1974-1979), itself a spin-off of Lear's Maude, which the producer had spun off of Lear's All in the Family. During his absence from The Jeffersons, Evans also appeared as Arnold Simms in the ten-hour ABC miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976).
In the interim, Mike Evans was temporarily replaced by another young black actor, Damon Evans (no relation), on the Jeffersons set. Mike Evans returned to The Jeffersons to play Lionel in the autumn of 1979. Over the remainder of the series run, the character of Lionel married Jenny (Berlinda Tolbert), the daughter of a neighboring biracial couple, and a year after Mike Evans returned to the series in 1979, the onscreen couple had a baby daughter. Over time, Lionel and Jenny separated, then divorced, with Evans permanently departing from the series in 1981.
The Jeffersons marked Evans' last major television effort, though he appeared briefly in a 2000 episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. During his later years, Evans invested heavily in southern California real estate. He died of throat cancer, at age 57, on December 14, 2006.