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.
He fell in with gangs but quit after he was abandoned during a fight broken up by the police. He dropped out of school, joined the Air Force and became a desk clerk based in South Korea and Japan.
After his discharge at 22, he attended a dramatic arts school in Philadelphia and spent years acting in church and community theater groups while also working as a mailman. A 1967 appearance in the Jean Genet drama “The Blacks” at a Philadelphia theater led to an offer to join the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company acting workshop in New York.
Critics applauded Mr. Hemsley’s supporting role on Broadway in the 1970 musical comedy “Purlie,” based on the Ossie Davis play “Purlie Victorious.” The show made stars of Cleavon Little and Melba Moore, but Lear was taken with Mr. Hemsley and soon hired him to play George Jefferson.
After “The Jeffersons” folded, Mr. Hemsley played Deacon Ernest Frye in “Amen,” which aired on NBC from 1986 to 1991. The show, set in the fictional First Community Church of Philadelphia, was among the first popular sitcoms to revolve around religion. It focused on the tensions between the strutting veteran deacon (Mr. Hemsley), whose father started the church, and a younger man with new ideas (Clifton Davis).
“Despite an occasional refreshing pause for a rousing spiritual, ‘Amen’ adds up to a fairly standard sitcom,” television critic John J. O’Connor wrote in the New York Times. “Pointed remarks about apartheid in South Africa are mixed in with a nonstop barrage of gags. The result tends to leave everything a bit fuzzy and pointless.”
Unlike his television persona, Mr. Hemsley was often described as an understated professional. Mr. Hemsley told the Chicago Tribune in 1988 that he was often frustrated by lack of peer recognition. He said he felt slighted when he was not nominated for an Emmy for his leading role on “The Jeffersons” until the end of the series’s run.
Mr. Hemsley tried to parlay his television success into a music career through the release of the 1989 single “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and a rhythm-and-blues album, “Dance,” in 1992.
He had a recurring voice-over role on the televised puppet series “Dinosaurs” in the early 1990s, reunited with his “Jeffersons” co-star Sanford in commercials for Old Navy, Gap and Denny’s, and continued to make guest appearances on shows until recently, including a reprise of George Jefferson on “House of Payne,” the Tyler Perry-produced sitcom on TBS.
Mr. Hemsley knew his most loyal viewers were working class, and he enjoyed tweaking his one-time television rival Cosby, who featured white-collar characters on his sitcom.
“It’s a very well-executed show,” he told the Tribune in 1988 of “The Cosby Show.” “Very professional. Of course, it’s not very funny. But it is professional.”