Sherman Hemsley, the vivacious comic actor who played the tough, “new money” George Jefferson on the hit CBS sitcom “The Jeffersons,” died on Tuesday July 24 at his home in El Paso. He was 74. He died of natural causes and no autopsy was needed.
The Jeffersons were introduced as Archie Bunker’s Queens neighbors on “All in the Family” in 1971. The George Jefferson character was created as a black counterpart for Archie Bunker. Although George’s wife, Louise, was often seen, George did not appear until 1973.
The story line suggested George did not want to enter a white household, but in reality Hemsley was unavailable until then.
The character of George Jefferson proved so popular that a spinoff series was developed. “The Jeffersons” made its debut in January 1975. George was an instant hit with audiences who connected to his sharptongue humor and jazzy walk.
In 1986 Hemsley joined the cast of “Amen” as Deacon Ernest Frye, a corrupt pastor who closely resembled the George Jefferson character.
Born February 1, 1938 in south Philadelphia, Hemsley’s mother was a lamp factory worker and he did not meet his father until he was 14-years-old. He attended Central High School, but later dropped out and joined the Air Force. After leaving the Air Force, he returned to Philadelphia and obtained a job at the post office during the day and pursued his passion for acting at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. One of his first big roles earlier in his career was playing Gitlow in the Broadway play ‘Purlie.”
The George Jefferson character followed Hemsley through is career, he avoided the pitfalls of most actors who are typecasted and enjoyed success making guest appearences on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Guy,” commercials for Old Navy, Denny’s and The Gap. He reprised his role as George Jefferson in an episode of “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
Hemsley never married and had no children. In his last years he withdrew from the spotlight. He was labeled reclusive by industry insiders.
Hemsley in a rare interview to the Archive of American Television, he said George Jefferson was the hardest character to play, but “he had to do it.” Hemsley will be gone, but never forgotten.