LOS ANGELES, July 28, 2012 — George Jefferson has permanently left the building. He is now reunited with his beloved Weezie, having moved on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky.
Several days ago the world lost an immense talent with the passing of Sherman Hemsley at the age of 74. Mr. Hemsley succeeded in Hollywood but lived his final years quietly at his home in Texas.
While any discussion of Mr. Hemsley begins and ends with “The Jeffersons,” he had a comedic talent that served him well before and after he and his alter ego George Jefferson struck it rich.
He would go on to play Deacon Frye in “Amen,” which launched Anna Marie Horsford to stardom. His talents on Broadway were so respected by Norman Lear that Mr. Lear held the role of George Jefferson open for two years until Mr. Hemsley finally accepted.
The hour of television that included “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” may have been the finest comedy hour in the history of television. Sherman Hemsley began playing his George Jefferson character on “All in the Family” as a counter-puncher to Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker.
Yet George Jefferson was more than just a black Archie Bunker. Archie was white, but he was working class. He was also not a role model. He was not what we aspired to be. George Jefferson was a role model not just for black people, but for everybody. The character always reminded others that he earned his money by working hard.
One episode showed how he began his dry-cleaning business, wondering if it would ever survive. Finally a woman comes in and makes it clear that she will be a repeat customer if he does a good job. She demands “light on starch.” He takes the dollar she gives him and puts it on the wall, the first dollar he ever made. That episode begins with George counting his money. “Ones on the left, fives in the middle, tens on the end…and twenties in the pocket.”
Yet we see a softer side of George at the end of that episode. His very first (and now long-time) customer comes in. She owes him some money and apologizes for falling behind, saying something about “ever since my husband died.” After she leaves, he rips up her IOU bill and throws it away.
It is worth noting that the elderly woman is white. Her race was trumped by her being his oldest and most loyal customer. Normally George believed in the cliche that it was not about black or white, but green. Yet at this moment, even money became secondary.
Yes, George could be obnoxious. Neighbors Tom and Helen Willis were an interracial couple that he kept referring to as a “zebra.” Yet he never got the last word with his wife or his house-lady. Marla Gibbs played maid Florence, while Isabel Sanford was outstanding as wife Louise “Weezie” Jefferson. Whenever George would come perilously close to crossing a moral line, he would ask “What would Weezie do?”
Then he would grudgingly make the tough but morally right decision. One example was lowering prices 10% in his one store located in a poor neighborhood.
One powerful episode dealt with George finding out that members of the Ku Klux Klan were holding a meeting in his building. When the Klan leader has a heart attack, George performs CPR and saves his life. When the man’s son tells him a black man saved him, the man replies, “Son, next time let me die.” George feels defeated, thinking that the world would never change. Yet it does. The father remains a racist, but the son immediately rips the racist brochures in half and quits the Klan.
While the show dealt with serious themes, it was first and foremost a comedy. Mr. Hemsley was simply hilarious. No matter how hard George tried, he could never get on the good side of bank president H.L. Whittendale. Mr. Whittendale was white, but this was also never about race. As it was explained to George by a Whittendale associate, “He hates your guts.”
One heartwarming episode had George reading his granddaughter a bedtime story about a monster named “inflation.” At the end the girl cried, so he tried a different story. There was “a mama bear, a papa bear, and a big, fat, polar bar named (Tom) Willis.”
In one fine scene, we saw all of George’s good and bad points at once. When an elderly couple fought so much that they were about to divorce, George stepped in to demand an end to the bickering. He gave a passionate, heartfelt speech about how marriage was hard work. Nothing good comes easy, and love is about accepting people for their flaws and getting over it. First came the serious message, and then came the comedy when referencing Weezie.
“Do you know why our marriage works? Because I put up with all her faults! She’d do the same for me if I had any!”
Weezie’s look of exasperation and love at her husband reflected his noble intentions, even if his ultimate delivery was lacking.
While Sherman Hemsley insisted that George Jefferson was nothing like him, they shared some important things in common. They both worked hard, combined luck, skill, and immense talent, and built good lives for themselves. They believed in the American dream because they embodied it.
They loved America, and America certainly loved them back.
Both George Jefferson and Sherman Hemsley will be missed.
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