EL PASO, Tex., July 25, 2012 – Sherman Hemsley, 74—the popular TV actor best known as the curmudgeonly George Jefferson on both “All in the Family” and his own spinoff series, “The Jeffersons”—was found dead Tuesday evening in his long-time home here. El Paso police did not suspect foul play, and he appears to have died from natural causes, but the exact cause of death is still pending.
A native of Philadelphia, Hemsley first gained the notice of television audiences when he was cast as George Jefferson, the feisty black foil to notoriously bigoted Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), the star and paterfamilias in the popular 1970s CBS sitcom “All in the Family.” Their edgy but comical jousts generated enough positive audience vibes for the network to spin Hemsley off into his own series. “The Jeffersons,” which co-starred Isabel Sanford as his wife Louise, also proved durable, lasting for eleven seasons (1975-85) before folding.
Already a successful businessman as the owner of a dry-cleaning establishment in “All in the Family,” Hemsley’s character grew his business further, becoming wealthy in the process in “The Jeffersons”. At the point of the spinoff series, George Jefferson decides that his new status would be appropriately reflected if he moved out of Queens and into a fancy apartment on Manhattan’s tony upper east side, a sentiment best expressed by the opening lyrics of “The Jeffersons’” catchy, gospel-style theme song:
“…we’re movin’ on up,
To the east side.
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Movin’ on up,
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie.”
The nouveau riche George Jefferson’s constant bickering with his wealthy new neighbors provided the comic impetus for the new sitcom. (Oddly enough, Hemsley’s own home was located on El Paso’s east side as well.)
Hemsley was raised by his mother and father in gritty South Philadelphia where mom worked in a factory and his father worked at a printing company. A school dropout, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he served a four-year stint. After his stint in the service, he managed to pick up a job with the then U. S. Post Office in his hometown. Curious about acting, which he’d dabbled with while still a teen, he began studying the craft at night school, before transferring to a Post Office job in New York where he had a better chance of finding work as an actor.
It was in New York that Hemsley’s acting career began to blossom. He participated in theater workshops and eventually joined New York’s Negro Ensemble company, holding down his day job while working hard at night to become part of his new city’s theater scene. His hard work eventually paid off when he picked up a role in the Broadway musical Purlie, an adaptation of the Ossie Davis play Purlie Victorious.
It was during a touring version of that show that he was spotted by “All in the Family” producer Norman Lear, who offered him the new George Jefferson role in Lear’s popular sitcom. Eventually, next to Bill Cosby, Hemsley became the next best-known black actor on TV, proving to be a genuine comic sensation in both “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.”
After the latter series’ cancellation, Hemsley, scarcely missing a beat, turned up as the star of another TV sitcom, this time playing hell-and-brimstone church deacon Ernest Frye in “Amen,” which ran successfully from 1986 to 1991. Hemsley also starred occasionally in feature films during this period. Throughout the last two decades, he continued to make occasional guest shots on various TV sitcoms, including “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” as well as periodic voice-over stints on the animated series “Family Guy.”
Just last year, he reprised his role as George Jefferson during a guest spot on the TV sitcom “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
Recently, Hemsley had apparently been considering reviving his theatrical career, actively considering a part in an upcoming touring revival of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” But his death yesterday evening brought an abrupt and untimely end to his long, successful career.
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