Sherman Hemsley, star of ‘The Jefferson,’ dead at 74
He played a bigot, but audiences loved him
Sherman Alexander Hemsley, famous for his role as the bigoted George Jefferson on the CBS television series “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” may have “moved on up” after all, but not to the east side, as “The Jeffersons’” theme music happily proclaimed.
Hemsley died Tuesday at his home in El Paso, Texas, reportedly of natural causes. He was 74.
Hemsley was born and raised in South Philadelphia by his mother, who was a factory worker. He attended Central High School for a time before dropping out to join the United States Air Force, where he served for four years.
On leaving the Air Force, Hemsley moved to New York, where he worked for the post office during the day and began working as an actor at night. He debuted as the character Gitlow in the early 1970s Broadway play “Purlie,” with which he toured for a year.
In New York, Hemsley studied at the Negro Ensemble Company. Shortly after, he joined Vinnette Carroll’s Urban Arts Company, appearing in productions such as “Jam Today,” “The Lottery,” “Old Judge Mose Is Dead,” “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl,” “Step Lively Boys,” “Croesus,” and “The Witch.”
While Hemsley was on Broadway with “Purlie,” television writer and producer Norman Lear called him in 1971 to play the role of George Jefferson on his burgeoning new sitcom, “All in the Family.”
Hemsley was reluctant to leave his theater role, but Lear told him that he would hold the role open for him. Hemsley joined the cast two years later.
The characters of Hemsley and co-star Isabel Sanford, who played his wife Louise, were secondary on “All in the Family,” but were given their own spin-off series, “The Jeffersons,” less than two years after Hemsley made his debut on the show. “The Jeffersons” proved to be one of Lear’s most successful shows, enjoying a run of eleven seasons through 1985. Audiences loved George Jefferson.
Though Hemsley was largely typecast as George Jefferson, the feisty bigot who saw Whites as “Honkies,” he continued to work steadily after the show’s cancellation. He teamed up with the show’s original cast members when “The Jeffersons” moved to Broadway for a brief period.
Hemsley joined the cast of NBC’s “Amen” in 1986 as Ernest Frye, a crooked church deacon. The show ran for of five seasons, ending in 1991. Hemsley then was a voice actor in the ABC live-action puppet series “Dinosaurs,” where he played Bradley P. Richfield, the main character’s evil boss. The show also ran for five seasons, ending in 1994.
Hemsley largely retired from television acting, although he and Isabel Sanford appeared together in the late 1990s and in the early 2000s, reprising their roles in guest spots on television programs such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and numerous commercials. The two continued to work together on occasion until Sanford began having health problems leading to her death in 2004.
In recent years prior to his death, Hemsley made a voice appearance as himself in the Seth McFarlane animated comedy “Family Guy.” In 2011, he reprised his role as George Jefferson once again, along with Marla Gibbs as Florence Johnston in “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
Hemsley never married and had no children.
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