02/08/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
BETWEEN GEORGE'S RANTINGS AND Florence's wisecracks, George's son Lionel Jefferson didn't get to say much on the long-running sitcom The Jeffersons. But Damon Evans, who portrayed Lionel from 1975 to 1978, made up for it offstage. Actor Ned Wertimer, the Jeffersons' doorman in the series, remembers once pulling up to a stoplight and hearing opera booming from the adjacent car. He looked over, and there was Evans belting out an aria from Carmen. "And he was good," says Wertimer.
These days, Wertimer isn't the only one who thinks so. Since leaving the series, Evans has moved to England and taken his strong tenor from prime time to Puccini—movin' on up, as it were, to a flourishing career as an opera singer. "The majority of people in America do not know I sing," says Evans, 43. "But in England I am only known as a singer."
Last year, Evans was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony) for his portrayal of Joe in the musical Carmen Jones. His October debut at London's Covent Garden—playing Sportin' Life in the Royal Opera House's production of Porgy and Bess (to air on PBS next fall)—was called "chillingly intelligent" by the Financial Times reviewer. Then came the release of a new CD featuring Evans and three other soloists performing with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Not even opera buffa would have dared present a character who goes from the sitcom to the sublime, but Evans had written his own libretto more than 20 years ago. "I went into TV to finance my music," says the singer. "I never thought of TV as a lifestyle. It was a little insurance in case the music didn't happen."
A native of Baltimore, Evans got his first earful of opera when the father of childhood pal Kurt Schmoke (now Baltimore's mayor) took the boys to a production of Aida. The only child of Richard Evans, a lab technician and a part-time waiter, and Berteal Matthews, a secretary, Damon studied music and voice and—with a financial assist from his grandmother—even traveled to London as a teenager to take in a Covent Garden performance of Don Giovanni. As a high school student, he won a scholarship to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and after graduation returned to Maryland, where he formed the Baltimore Youth Chamber Opera Society with cash he'd received for graduation and a contribution from two of his aunts. "I wanted to share what I had learned," he says.
He worked in Broadway musicals for four years, then drifted to TV, where he appeared on the soap Love of Life before moving to L.A. and into the Jeffersons role originally created on All in the Family by Mike Evans (no relation). Leaving the sitcom "took more courage than I ever thought I had," he recalls. "[Producer] Norman Lear said to me, 'Do you know how many kids would like to be where you are—and you want to sing opera?' "
The answer was, gulp, yes. Evans returned to New York City to study singing again, while living off his Jeffersons residuals and money he earned doing temp work. "I had a teacher who'd say, 'Oh, here comes the Hollywood actor who wants to sing,' " Evans recounts. "I was always trying to prove that I was more than what my background showed."
Then Evans hit on another solution: He got rid of his background—by moving to England, where The Jeffersons has never aired. He immediately found steady work as a singer and eventually settled into a modest one-bedroom West London flat. While his personal life has been bumpy of late (his engagement to a British physical therapy student ended recently), Evans's career is on a smooth ascent. "I feel so full and so rich," he says. "So much is happening."
These days he is even at peace with the ghost of his past. During a visit to Milan, Evans was passing through the airport when he heard two children. "Mama, Papa," they cried out, and then, pointing at Evans, "Li-oh-nel! Li-oh-nel!" That never happened to Caruso, after all.
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London