EL PASO, Texas – Sherman Hemsley, the actor who made the irascible, bigoted George Jefferson of “The Jeffersons” one of television’s most memorable characters and a symbol for urban upward mobility, has died. He was 74.
Police in El Paso, Texas, said late Tuesday that Hemsley was found dead at a local home where neighbors said he’d lived for years. A statement from police said no foul play is suspected and that the exact cause of death is pending.
The Philadelphia-born Hemsley first played the blustering black Harlem businessman on CBS’s “All in the Family” before he was spun off onto “The Jeffersons,” which in 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985 became one of TV’s most successful sitcoms – particularly noteworthy for its mostly black cast.
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, prejudiced, temperamental, a boor – 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.
Sherman Alexander Hemsley, though, was far less feisty than the character he played. 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.
He made his Broadway debut in 1970’s “Purlie,” a musical adaptation of Ossie Davis’ Jim Crow-era play “Purlie Victorious.” It was while touring the show that Hemsley was approached by producer Norman Lear about playing a character on the sitcom that would become “All in the Family.”
Hemsley read for the part and “the minute he opened his mouth he was George Jefferson,” Lear said.