Sherman Hemsley, the actor behind the legendary television character George Jefferson, died Tuesday in El Paso. One of the most successful and visible black actors of his time, Hemsley debuted on Norman Lear’s show, “All in the Family” in 1973.
His most famous role was nothing like his own personality, and Hemsley was praised for his work, reports the Post’s Adam Bernstein:
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.”
Hemsley joined the Air Force and spent years in church and community theater groups before really delving into acting, Bernstein says:
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.
Following the end of “The Jeffersons,” Hemsley moved on to “Amen,” as Deacon Ernest Frye, Bernstein says:
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).
TV Land will pay tribute to Sherman Hemsley with a marathon of “The Jeffersons” this weekend, with Hemsley’s most memorable episodes from noon to 4 p.m.
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