- US acting family. Its patriarch, the British-born Joseph J.Jefferson (1774 - 1832), had eight sons, seven of whom also becameactors; his own father, Thomas J. Jefferson (1732 - 1897), hadappeared at Drury Lane with Garrick.
Joseph Jefferson made his New York debut in 1796 in Vanbrugh'sThe Provok'd Husband. He was subsequently the leading actorat Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theatre for nearly 30 years,where he appeared in such comic roles as Farmer Ashfield in Morton'sSpeed the Plough. His son, also Joseph J. Jefferson (1804 - 42),was a scenic artist and actor and the father of the third and mostfamous Joseph J. Jefferson (1829 - 1905), a leading comedy actor.He made his debut at the age of four in Washington, DC, singing 'JumpJim Crow' with the black-faced comedy singer T. D. Rice. In 1857 hejoined Laura Keene's company in New York and a year later became anovernight success as Asa Trenchard in Tom Taylor's Our AmericanCousin. He subsequently joined the Winter Garden Theatre in NewYork under the direction of Dion Boucicault, creating the role ofSalem Scudder in Boucicault's The Octoroon. Another famous role,which he would play many hundreds of times, was that of Bob Acres in Sheridan's The Rivals.
After the death of his wife in 1861, Jefferson toured Australia.There, during a performance in the mining town of Castlemaine, hewas horrified to see a barker standing on a barrel outside the theatershouting "Step up, ladies and gentlemen. Now or never is youronly chance to see the greatest living wonder of the age, Joseph Jefferson."The actor refused to go on unless the man desisted. When the barkerrefused, a tussle with the manager resulted in him falling throughthe barrel until, as Jefferson recalled, "only a fat head justappeared above the top. They tipped the barrel over and rolled himoff inside, to the great amusement of the bystanders..."
In 1865 Jefferson went to London where he starred in Boucicault'sadaptation of Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle. It ran for170 nights and Jefferson went on to play the part some 2500 times overthe next 15 years.