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.”