Sherman Hemsley, ‘Jeffersons’ Star, Is Dead at 74
By Mel Watkins
Sherman Hemsley, the bantamweight comic actor who portrayed the scrappy, nouveau riche George Jefferson on the hit CBS sitcom “The Jeffersons,” died on Tuesday at his home in El Paso. He was 74.
His death was confirmed by his agent, Todd Frank. He did not specify a cause.
The Jeffersons were introduced as Archie Bunker’s Queens neighbors on “All in the Family” in 1971. George was conceived as a black version of Archie, as distrustful of white people as Archie was of black people (and almost everyone else). Although George’s wife, Louise, was frequently seen, George himself was mentioned but did not appear on camera until 1973: he was said to be unwilling to set foot in a white family’s house. (In reality, Mr. Hemsley was unavailable until then. Mel Stewart was seen as George’s brother, Henry, until Mr. Hemsley joined the cast.)
The character of George Jefferson proved so popular that a spinoff series was developed. “The Jeffersons” made its debut in January 1975; in the opening episode, George, the owner of a successful cleaning business; his wife, whom he called Weezy (played by Isabel Sanford, who was 20 years Mr. Hemsley’s senior); and their son, Lionel (Mike Evans), leave Queens and, in the words of the show’s memorable theme song, are “movin’ on up” to Manhattan’s fashionable Upper East Side — to “a deluxe apartment in the sky.” The show was an immediate success, finishing fourth in the 1975 Nielsen ratings.
High-strung and irrepressible, George Jefferson quickly became one of America’s most popular television characters, a high-energy, combative black man who backed down to no one — something that had rarely been seen on television. At the same time, however, he was vain, snobbish and bigoted (“honky” was one of his favorite epithets directed at whites), and flaunted his self-regard like a badge. Each week, his wife or their irreverent maid, Florence (played by Marla Gibbs), would step up to scuttle his wrongheaded schemes or deflate his delusions of grandeur.
Florence: It just occurred to me why your hair keeps falling out.
Florence: You ain’t got nothing up there for it to root in!
“The Jeffersons” was a hit until it left the air in 1985. And the reclusive Mr. Hemsley, who tended to avoid the Hollywood spotlight, established himself as one of television’s most popular stars, if also one of the least accessible.
Sherman Alexander Hemsley was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 1, 1938. He dropped out of Edward W. Bok Technical High School in the 10th grade to join the Air Force and was stationed in Asia after the Korean War. He returned to Philadelphia after his discharge and, while working at the post office, attended Philadelphia’s Academy of Dramatic Arts in the evening.
In 1967, encouraged by the actor and director Robert Hooks, Mr. Hemsley moved to New York to pursue an acting career. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company, studied with the renowned actor and director Lloyd Richards (later dean of the Yale School of Drama) and performed with Vinette Carroll’s Urban Arts Corps. He also appeared in Off Broadway productions. In one — a double bill of “Old Judge Mose Is Dead” and “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” (1969) — he drew praise from The New York Times, which called him “an actor whose instinct for the comic line and the comic gesture, even the comic lift of an eyelash, is wholly natural and just about perfect.”
Mr. Hemsley’s big break came a year later when he was cast in the Broadway musical “Purlie.” When Norman Lear was looking for an actor to play Archie Bunker’s neighbor, he remembered seeing Mr. Hemsley in that show.
“The cocky energy of the guy was totally in sync with the offstage image we had created of George,” Mr. Lear later said.
Mr. Lear traced Mr. Hemsley to San Francisco, where he was appearing onstage in the musical “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” and offered him the role of George Jefferson.
A year after “The Jeffersons” left the air, Mr. Hemsley returned to television in “Amen,” a sitcom set in a black Baptist church in Philadelphia. He starred as Deacon Ernest Frye, a character every bit as caustic and blustery as George Jefferson. In the opening episode, he tells an overweight pastor: “God gave each of us a temple. You have torn yours down and put up a Pizza Hut.” The show ran on NBC from 1986 to 1991.
The popularity of reruns of “The Jeffersons” on Nick at Nite and TV Land in the 1990s spurred a renewed interest in the show’s stars. In the ’90s and early 2000s Mr. Hemsley, Ms. Sanford (who died in 2004) and Ms. Gibbs were frequent guests on prime-time shows. Mr. Hemsley in particular seemed to show up on almost every sitcom with a primarily black cast, among them “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “The Wayans Brothers” and “The Hughleys,” on which he and Ms. Gibbs both had recurring roles. He also starred as a con man in the short-lived UPN comedy “Goode Behavior” in the 1996-97 season. His most recent appearance was on the Tyler Perry sitcom “House of Payne” in 2011 — as George Jefferson.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
At the height of his popularity on “The Jeffersons,” rumors surfaced that Mr. Hemsley was a temperamental loner, as arrogant and difficult as the character he played. The actors he worked with tended to disagree. “I’m here to tell you it’s a lie,” Clifton Davis, his co-star on “Amen,” said of the rumors. “He’s very shy, and he’s not on an ego trip.”
Mr. Hemsley laughed at the suggestion that his personality was in any way similar to George Jefferson’s. “I’m nothing like him,” he said in 1996. “I don’t slam doors in people’s faces, and I’m not a bigot. I’m just an old hippie. You know — peace and love.”