EL PASO, Texas (AP) — George Jefferson was a bigot. A loudmouth. Rude. Obsessed with money. Arrogant. And yet he was one of the most enjoyable, beloved characters in television history.
Much of that credit belongs to Sherman Hemsley, the gifted character actor who gave life to the blustering black Harlem businessman on The Jeffersons, one of TV's longest running and most successful sitcoms — particularly noteworthy with its mostly black cast.
The Philadelphia-born Hemsley, who police said late Tuesday died at his home in El Paso, Texas, at age 74, first played George Jefferson on CBS’s All in the Family before he was spun off onto The Jeffersons. The sitcom ran for 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985.
With the gospel-style theme song of Movin’ On Up, the hit show depicted the wealthy former neighbors of Archie and Edith Bunker in Queens as they made their way on New York’s Upper East Side. Hemsley and the Jeffersons (Isabel Sanford played his wife) often dealt with contemporary issues of racism, but more frequently reveled in the sitcom archetype of a short-tempered, opinionated patriarch trying, often unsuccessfully to control his family.
Hemsley's feisty, diminutive father with an exaggerated strut was a kind of black corollary to Archie Bunker — a stubborn, high-strung man who had a deep dislike for whites (his favorite word for them was honkies). Yet unlike the blue-collar Bunker, played by Carroll O'Connor, he was a successful businessman who was as rich as he was crass. His wife, Weezie, was often his foil — yet provided plenty of zingers as well.
Despite the character’s many faults — money-driven, prejudiced, temperamental, a boor — Hemsley managed to make the character endearing, part of the reason it stayed on the air for so long. Hemsley’s Jefferson loved his family, his friends (even the ones he relentlessly teased) and had a good heart. His performance was Emmy and Golden Globe nominated.
The son of a printing press-working father and a factory-working mother, Hemsley served in the Air Force and worked for eight years as a clerk for the Postal Service.
Having studied acting as an adolescent at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began acting in New York workshops and theater companies, including the Negro Ensemble Company. For years, he kept his job at the post office while acting at night, before transitioning to acting full-time.
He made his Broadway debut in 1970’s Purlie, a musical adaptation of Ossie Davis’ Jim Crow-era play Purlie Victorious. It was while touring the show that Hemsley was approached about playing a character on the sitcom that would become All in the Family.
Hemsley joined the show in 1973, immediately catapulting himself from an obscure theater actor to a hit character on the enormously popular show.