Franklin Cover, the character actor who endured racial barbs as Tom Willis for 10 years on TV's The Jeffersons, died Sunday of pneumonia at a New Jersey rest home for performers, it was announced Thursday.

Cover was 77, and had been convalescing from an unspecified heart condition since last December, the Associated Press reported.

From 1975 to 1985, Cover costarred on The Jeffersons, the popular and enduring spinoff of All in the Family.

Like its forerunner, The Jeffersons was about a loudmouth with strong, and some would say, wrongheaded opinions. On The Jeffersons, the Archie Bunker-style bigot was George Jefferson, a black man originally from Harlem, played by Sherman Hemsley.

As Jefferson's neighbor in a deluxe Manhattan apartment building in the "sky-y-y," Willis made for a big target. He frequently was derided as a "honkey," on account of his being mighty white, and a "zebra," on account of his marriage to a black woman, Helen.

While the role didn't bring Cover any critical accolades, it did help him make history. According to Total Television, Tom and Helen Willis were the first interracial couple to be featured on a prime-time series.

Roxie Roker, who played Helen Willis, and later became better known as rocker Lenny Kravitz's real-life mother, died in 1995.

Born on Nov. 20, 1928 in Cleveland, Cover worked on TV on a guest star basis after The Jeffersons' run ended. His last appearance, per the Internet Movie Database, came in a 1999 episode of Will & Grace.

On the big screen, Cover played one of Stepford, Connecticut's resident robot-tinkering chauvinists in the original The Stepford Wives, released in 1975. In the greed-is-good 1980s, he got eaten by the Wall Street sharks in Oliver Stone's Wall Street.

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