Sherman Hemsley, the actor who made the loudmouth, arrogant George Jefferson of “The Jeffersons,” one of television’s most memorable characters and a symbol for urban upward mobility died on July 24, 2012. He was 74.
Sherman Alexander Hemsley was born in South 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, 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 and performed with Vinnette 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” in 1969.
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 Hemsley in that show. Lear traced 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.
“He was a love of a guy” and “immensely talented,” said Norman Lear, producer of “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family.” “When the Jeffersons moved in next door to the Bunkers, I wanted to deliver the George Jefferson who could stand up to Archie Bunker.
The minute he opened his mouth he was George Jefferson. Hemsley was smaller than O’Connor’s Archie, but he was every bit as strong as Archie.”
With the gospel-style theme song of “Movin’ on Up,” the hit show depicted the wealthy, former neighbors of Archie and Edith Bunker in Queens as they made their way on New York’s Upper East Side. Hemsley and the Jeffersons (Isabel Sanford played his wife) often dealt with contemporary issues of racism, but more frequently reveled in the sitcom archetype of a short-tempered, opinionated patriarch trying, often unsuccessfully, to control his family.
Despite the character’s many faults — money-driven and temperamental — Hemsley managed to make the character endearing, part of the reason it stayed on the air for so long. His performance was Emmy and Golden Globe nominated.
“All of it was really hard ... because — rude, I don’t like to be that way,” Hemsley said in a 2003 interview for the Archive of American Television. “But it was the character, I had to do it. I had to be true to the character. If I was to pull back something, then it just wouldn’t work.”
A year after “The Jeffersons” left the air, 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.
His films include 1979’s “Love at First Bite,” 1987’s “Stewardess School” and 1987’s “Ghost Fever.” He also released an album, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” in 1989.
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 Hemsley, Sanford (who died in 2004) and Gibbs were frequent guests on prime-time shows.
Hemsley had recurring roles in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “The Wayans Brothers” and “The Hughleys,” along with Gibbs. 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.
“Sherman Hemsley was a true son of the city,” said Mayor Michael Nutter. “I grew up watching him on ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons.’ He portrayed a businessman who never forgot where he came from. Every week, he offered a little insight into African-American urban life. And I’m sure we’ll continue to watch him on television reruns.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.