Remembering Sherman Hemsley

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Loud, crass, argumentative and often surly, George Jefferson became a popular favorite while playing off another thundering bigot, Archie Bunker in All in the Family. When The Jeffersons was spun off into its own show, the spitfire George Jefferson moved his family from Queens to the Upper East Side for 11 seasons.

But the man behind the character was neither brash nor loud, and no one who knew him ever described him as rude. Producer Norman Lear described Sherman Hemsley as "a love of a guy." A man whose sweetness and compassion helped smooth the rough edges of his character and make him endearing in spite of the bluster.

Helmsley was born in Philadelphia to working class parents. He served in the Air Force and then took a job with the postal service. He could have spent his life working for the government, but he had taken acting lessons as a child, and he never gave up on that dream. For years, he worked days at the post office and then caught the subway to a theatre for performances at night. Helmsley was doing a touring production of the Broadway show Purlie when Norman Lear saw him and offered him the role of George Jefferson.

There were many spin-offs from All in the Family — Maude, Archie Bunker's Place — but The Jeffersons lasted the longest and had the greatest impact. In a racially charged time, Sherman Hemsley talked about race every week, joked about it, complained about it, and argued about it, without turning people away or turning them off.

It was his good nature and sweet disposition that made the prickly Jefferson so appealing. His portrayal of George Jefferson was bold and unapologetic, never swerving from uncomfortable truths or hiding his faults. For more than a decade, the Jeffersons were America's favorite New York family.

Since the Jeffersons left the air in 1985, Sherman Hemsley starred on the NBC series Amen, made guest appearances on a number of shows, and even recorded a single in 1989. But Hemsley would never leave behind his most enduring role, and his name will forever be associated with the man who finally got his piece of the pie. Sherman Hemsley was found dead yesterday at his home in El Paso, Texas. He was 74.

Produced by:

Mythili Rao

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