WYTHE CO., Va., July 25, 2012 - Sherman Hemsley has moved on up to that great sitcom in the sky, but his character George Jefferson on “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” has left a legacy of a strong and successful black man that will live on.
The Jeffersons is the longest-running sitcom with a predominantly black cast in the history of American television.
The show’s creator; Norman Lear, first introduced us to ourselves in the form of Archie Bunker and family in the ground chewing show “All in the Family.” He brought us face to face with a sometimes comical and exaggerated example of racist America, but never so outrageous that we could dismiss it as hubris.
“All in the Family” then introduced us to cocky, angry, and bigoted George Jefferson as a direct counterpart to the equally angry and bigoted Archie Bunker. This was done by having Archie’s white neighborhood “invaded” by the upwardly mobile black family, the Jeffersons. In a time when desegregation and busing had emotions running high in America, Norman Lear did what he does best; he rubbed our faces in our own short sighted perceptions and made us like it.
The genius in this was the many confrontations between “Archie” and “George” that demonstrated there were few differences between them beyond skin color. The two slowly developed a grudging respect for each other that mirrored the changing attitudes of the times.
Even more unique was Lear’s decision to portray George as a self assured, ambitious black man and burgeoning entrepreneur who verbally sparred with the quintessential blue collar dock worker; Archie Bunker. This reversal of traditional roles was groundbreaking and risky, but a strong cast and crew of writers overcame stereotypes and made Americans reevaluate their perceptions of African Americans in general.
So strong were the performances by the Jefferson family, Lear decided a spin off would be the natural progression of the angry and ambitious George, and the show “The Jeffersons” was born.
For a decade, from 1975 to 1985, America tuned in to watch the family “move on up to the east side,” and to watch them break down barriers and demonstrate success was no longer just a white thing in America.
Never one to pull punches, Lear used the show to introduce us to the first mixed race couple on television. Always vigilant for the tricks of “honkies,” George was just as hard on the interracial couple across the hall, Tom and Helen Willis, as the typical white bigot, forever making racist jokes about them.
Each week George’s fanaticism was tempered by the wise and gentle “Weezy,” (Played by Isabel Sanford) who never failed to put George in his place when his anger and racially motivated militancy got the best of him.
Sherman Alexander Hemsley 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 with this show that Norman Lear first spotted Hemsley.
When Lear wanted to develop the concept of a black family moving in next door to the Bunkers, he immediately thought of Sherman Hemsley. When Hemsley finally decided to audition for the role, Lear knew he had found his “George Jefferson.”
After “The Jeffersons,” Sherman Hemsley went on to play a church deacon in the sitcom “Amen,” that had a successful five year run in prime time television. He also became a favorite doing guest appearances on sitcoms, but we will forever remember him as the cocky, bigoted, but always endearing George Jefferson.
I can almost see Carrol O’Connor sitting in his easy chair, happily awaiting Hemsley’s arrival in Heaven, ready to take up where they left off. I’m sure God will be amused.
Rest in peace Sherman Hemsley.
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