Sherman Hemsley, the actor who made the irascible, bigoted George Jefferson of “The Jeffersons” one of television’s most memorable characters and a symbol for urban upward mobility, has died. He was 74.
Police in El Paso, Texas, said late Tuesday that Hemsley was found dead at a local home where neighbors said he’d lived for years. A statement from police said no foul play is suspected and that the exact cause of death is pending.
The Philadelphia-born Hemsley first played the blustering Black Harlem businessman on CBS’s “All in the Family” before he was spun off onto “The Jeffersons,” which in 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985 became one of TV’s most successful sitcoms — particularly noteworthy with its mostly Black cast.
“He was a love of a guy” and “immensely talented,” said Norman Lear, produce of “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family,” after learning of his death.
“When the Jeffersons moved in next door to the Bunkers, I wanted to deliver the George Jefferson who could stand up to Archie Bunker,”
Lear held the role for two years specifically for Hemsley, who was performing on Boradway in ‘Purlie’. He made his Broadway debut in 1970’s “Purlie,” a musical adaptation of Ossie Davis’ Jim Crowera play “Purlie Victorious.” (Hemsley would later star in a 1981 made-for-TV version of “Purlie,” as well.)
Sherman Alexander Hemsley, though, was far less feisty. The son of a printing press-working father and a factory-working mother, Hemsley served in the Air Force and worked for eight years as a clerk for the Postal Service.
Having 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.
For years, he kept his job at the post office while acting at night, before transitioning to acting full-time.
Hemsley had a long acting career, he later returned to television with another successful sitcom, ‘Amen’, and later shared the spotlight again with his TV wife, Isabel Sanford starring in various commercials that included, The Gap, Old Navy and Dennys to name a few. Sanford died in 2004.