Mr. Hemsley, who had a home in El Paso, grew up in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, quit high school and served in the Air Force before becoming a mainstay of a prominent black theater company in New York. By the 1980s, television had made him the most visible and successful black TV actor after Bill Cosby.
In 1973, Mr. Hemsley debuted as George Jefferson on the Norman Lear sitcom “All in the Family,” playing the bombastic paterfamilias who integrates a Queens neighborhood lorded over by Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor).
Jefferson, who owned a dry-cleaning store, was the black counterpart to Bunker’s working-class racist, and the chemistry between the two performers allowed them to spew bluster and ignorance in comic droves.
Like other secondary characters from “All in the Family,” the Jeffersons spun off into their own series that aired on CBS from 1975 to 1985. In the new show, George Jefferson’s business success in dry cleaning allows him to move his family into a luxury high rise. Financial security didn’t stop George from bickering with his wife, Louise (Isabel Sanford), or their son, Lionel (Mike Evans and later Damon Evans).
The program’s theme song, “Movin’ on Up,” conveyed the comic situations sparked by George’s boorish and argumentative nature amid their new neighbors. Suspicious of white people, he doesn’t hesitate to call them “honkies.”
Reviewers noted a crucial distinction between Archie Bunker and George Jefferson. “The problem here is that unlike Bunker, we find little about George that we can like,” Joel Dreyfuss wrote in The Washington Post in 1975. “Bunker, under all the bigotry and irrational fears, displayed some warmth and human understanding. In this case we are left with George Jefferson as simply irrational and unlikable.”
Dreyfuss added that the problem is that it’s hard to tell whether people might dislike Jefferson because of his race or because he’s insufferable.
Mr. Hemsley said the role was counter to his own disposition, telling The Post that Jefferson “seems like a wild man to me.” In finding the core of the man who made him popular with audiences for more than a decade, Mr. Hemsley added that George Jefferson is “like a little kid. You know, nobody really grows up. You just become more confused.”
Sherman Alexander Hemsley was born Feb. 1, 1938, in Philadelphia. He was raised by a single mother, who worked in a factory. His early life was a struggle, but he recalled vividly the warm feeling of being applauded in a school production about fire safety.
“I loved it, but had to forget about acting after elementary school because it was the sort of thing you just didn’t do in my rough neighborhood,” he told the Toronto Star in 1986.