Born in 1938, Sherman Hemsley served in the U.S. Air Force and worked for the U.S. Postal Service before becoming an actor. He made his Broadway debut in 1970 in the musical comedy Purlie. In 1973, Hemsley joined the cast of All in the Family as George Jefferson. He reprised this role on The Jeffersons from 1975 to 1985. Hemsley continued work steadily in television through the 1990s. He died on July 24, 2012.
Early Life and Career
While best known for his television work, Sherman Hemsley had started out as a stage actor. He grew up in Philadelphia, dropping out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. He served in Japan and Korea before returning to the states. After his military career ended, Hemsley worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He started studying acting in his spare time.
In the late 1960s, Hemsley appeared in several off-Broadway productions before his big break. He landed a supporting role in the Broadway musical comedy Purlie with Melba Moore and Cleavon Little, which began its run in 1970.
In the early 1970s, Hemsley made the switch to television, joining the cast of All in the Family. The sitcom, created by Norman Lear, starred Carroll O'Connor as the conservative and bigoted curmudgeon Archie Bunker. Hemsley and Isabel Sanford played Bunker's African-American neighbors, George and Louise "Weezy" Jefferson. Mike Evans played their son Lionel. George Jefferson, stubborn and equally opinionated, proved early on in the show that he could hold his own with Archie Bunker. Hemsley managed to imbue the outspoken character with warmth and depth, preventing him from appearing cartoonish or too over the top. He and Sanford also had great chemistry—Weezy and George became one of television's most beloved couples.
Before long, the Jefferson family earned their own show. The Jeffersons debuted in 1975 with perhaps one of the catchiest and most quotable television theme songs of all time "Movin' On Up." As the song goes, George and Weezy Jefferson moved "to a deluxe apartment in the sky" in this All in the Family spinoff. George's business had become so successful that the couple could move away from the old neighborhood. They even had Florence (Marla Gibbs) as their maid to take care of the place. While the show initially faltered in the ratings, the new comedy soon found its audience. People tuned in week after week to watch George lose his cool with his neighbors or over some other type of frustration.
After The Jeffersons ended in 1985, Hemsley soon landed another leading comedy role on television. He starred as Deacon Ernest Frye on Amen, a sitcom about a Philadelphia church. Much of the show's comedy was derived from Frye's interactions with his colleague, Reverend Reuben Gregory (Clifton Davis), as well as with his congregation. Lasting for five seasons, Amen ran from 1986 to 1991.
Hemsley continued to work during the rest of the 1990s. He lent his voice to one of the characters on The Dinosaurs from 1991 to 1994 and made guest appearances on such shows as Sister, Sister. In 1996, Hemsley tried once again for sitcom success with Goode Behavior. He played an imprisoned scam artist released into the custody of his estranged son (Dorien Wilson). The character and the show failed to click with audiences.
The love for The Jeffersons endured, however. Hemsley and Sanford reprised the roles of George and Weezy for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring Will Smith and they appeared together in advertising campaigns.
Death and Legacy
Sherman Hemsley died at age of 74 at his home in El Paso, Texas, on July 24, 2012. While he never married nor had children, Hemsley will be forever remembered for his portrayal of one of television's funniest husbands and fathers. He will also be known for his groundbreaking sitcom The Jeffersons—one of the first to focus on an African-American family.
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