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Veteran Sitcom Actor Sherman Hemsley Dies

By on July 25, 2012

Sherman Hemsley, the gifted comedic character actor who gave life to blustering businessman, George Jefferson on “The Jeffersons,” died Tuesday in Texas. He was 74.

If George Jefferson was one of America’s favorite tv sitcom characters then Hemsley was by far, the most talented and charismatic television actors having long cemented his legacy in television history on one of TV’s longest running and most successful sitcoms — particularly noteworthy with its mostly black cast.

The Philadelphia-born Hemsley, who police said late Tuesday died at his home in El Paso, Texas, at age 74, first played George Jefferson on CBS’s “All in the Family” before he was spun off onto “The Jeffersons.” The sitcom ran for 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985.

Who could forget the gospel-style theme song of “Movin’ On Up,” and the decade of episodes of the wealthy couple from Harlem (via former neighbors of Archie and Edith Bunker in Queens) to 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. For me, this family and their neighbors were a breath of fresh air as in the 1970’s there were few if any sitcoms depicting black life with any substance. The Jeffersons definitely paved the way for the Huxtables.

The son of a printing press-working father and a factory-working mother, Hemsley served in the Air Force and worked for eight years as a clerk for the Postal Service.

Having studied acting as an adolescent at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began acting in New York workshops and theater companies, including the Negro Ensemble Company. For years, he kept his job at the post office while acting at night, before transitioning to acting full-time.

He made his Broadway debut in 1970’s “Purlie,” a musical adaptation of Ossie Davis’ Jim Crow-era play “Purlie Victorious.” (Hemsley would later star in a 1981 made-for-TV version of “Purlie,” as well.) It was while touring the show that Hemsley was approached by Lear about playing a character on the sitcom that would become “All in the Family.”

Hemsley joined the show in 1973, immediately catapulting himself from an obscure theater actor to a hit character on the enormously popular show. Two years later, “The Jeffersons” was spun off. Among the numerous “All in the Family” spin-offs (“Maude,” ”Archie Bunker’s Place, “704 Hauser”), “The Jeffersons” was the longest-running. And in my opinion one of the best. Rest in peace Mr. Hemsley- job well done.


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