July 25th, 2012
10:51 AM ET

Sherman Hemsley: A tribute to the great George Jefferson, and more

By Ken Tucker, EW.com

(EW.com) - Sherman Hemsley, the man who brought George Jefferson to vivid life, has died at age 74. The accomplished stage actor achieved his widest fame in a role he raised to comic greatness: George Jefferson, the egotistical, strutting centerpiece of The Jeffersons.

Hemsley took a part that could have been clownish and exaggerated — George Jefferson, the braying entrepeneur striving to, as the show’s theme song said, “move on up”  — and made George a vital, three-dimensional character, and an important advance in the depiction of black characters in sitcoms. George’s ego and selfishness were often brought into line by his wife, Isabel Sanford’s Louise Jefferson (George’s beloved “Weezy”), but the force of the character derived from the tremendous ambition, frustration, and anger George felt toward the world.

You can credit producer Norman Lear for helping to conceive the character, first in All in the Family and then as a spin-off in The Jeffersons, but it was clearly Hemsley’s performance that fueled its power. Hemsley had come up through the theater, in straight dramas as well as musicals (he came to George Jefferson initially fresh from a run in the raucous, Ossie Davis-derived Broadway musical Purlie), and Jefferson brought a rhythmic musicality in the way George moved onscreen. His erect posture conveyed George’s pride, his perpetually affronted expression was a mask against the injustices, correctly perceived or imagined, by George; his harsh voice was the sound of a man who would not be denied his place in the world. Watching George Jefferson was to witness a man comfortable in his own skin — and that that skin was black was significant. From Hemsley’s performance, you could build an entire philosophy of the man he played. As a black man of his generation, George was as likely to have taken his civil rights cues from Malcolm X as from Martin Luther King, Jr. And while his business acumen placed him squarely in the capitalist tradition, George was a Black Panther-inspired figure of action, emboldened to make his opinions heard, his actions felt in the world around him.

The Jeffersons aired for a decade, 1975-85, and Hemsley’s performance embodied George’s move from the working-class to the middle-class as the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning businesses. George’s pride, his radar for any trace of racial exploitation, his ease at dismissing someone who’d offended or condescended to him as “honky” — these were all elements that could easily have put off mass America. Instead, because of Hemsley’s skill, charm, and energy, they became the elements that endeared the character to the country.

Hemsley went on to other roles. He was a rascal church deacon in the sitcom Amen; he provided the voice for an imperious character in the puppet sitcom Dinosaurs. These were, in a sense, variations on George Jefferson, who will live and rant and remain lovable and admirable forever.

This article originally appeared on EW.com

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Filed under: Black in America • How we look • Pop culture
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Jacqueline

    Well he's has finally moved on up. Rest in peace.

    December 28, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. amost1972

    My main purpose in writing this article is to convey to readers in India, who have not even heard of Sherman Hemsley, of his monumental cultural impact upon Mainstream American Society.

    Television programs that were created by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, that is their "new comedies", that were produced in the 1970s radically altered the boundaries of permissible expression in American television. African Americans in television comedy entered what might be called the Age of the New Minstrelsy. The coon character, that rascal-ish, loud, pushy, and conniving stereotype, strongly achieved in types such as Sherman Hemsley's boisterous George Jefferson. It was a bold gesture by the two producers. And its success restructured the content of situation comedy and redefined the medium as the vehicle of family entertainment. African-American viewers particularly enjoyed the Lear-Yorkin comedy product. George Jefferson was crusty, but benign as well. Although Lance Morrow in Time magazine described Sherman Hemsley's character more specifically – "entrepreneur, black bigot, a splenetic little whip of a man who bullies like a demented overseer, seldom speaks below a shriek and worships at the church of ostentation" (Blacks and White TV, African Americans in Television since 1948, Second Edition, J. Fred MacDonald, Nelson-Hall Publishers/Chicago 1992).

    Hemsley was the exact opposite of George Jefferson's short-tempered personality; he was the reserved type. Producer Don Nicholl said, "Sherman is the gentlest actor I've ever met. But, when we feed him these very harsh lines, he becomes a feisty bantam rooster." Hemsley's personal fashion tastes were also completely different from his character. A 1975 photo of Hemsley showed him in a finely tailored suit. He got along just fine with the cast. Mike Evans, who had played Lionel Jefferson, said, "It's not like we're real close, but I like him a lot. I know when he needs to talk and when he needs to be left alone. He's a good human being. And the relationship between Isabel Sanford and Hemsley was also normally cordial" (The Sitcoms of Norman Lear, Sean Campbell, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1989).

    The Jeffersons' cast members had appeared on the cover of t.v. guide during the following years: (1.) June 21st, 1975, with Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford and Mike Evans. (TV GUIDE FIFTY YEARS OF TELEVISION, Introduction by Mary Tyler Moore, Afterward by William Shatner, Preface by Steven Reddicliffe, Text by Mark Lasswell, Crown Publishers Nwe York, 2002). (2.) August 5th, 1978 with Sherman Hemsley, Paul Benedict and Isabel Sanford. (3.) May 17th, 1980, with Franklin Cover, Isabel Sanford, Roxie Roker. and Sherman Hemsley. (4.) February 6th, 1982, with Sherman Hemsley. (5.) July 30th, 1983, with Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley. (6.) January 17, 1987, Clifton Davis and Sherman Hemsley of "Amen". (7.) August 29th, 1987, Sherman Hemsley and Anna Maria Horsford of "Amen". (TV GUIDE, The Official Collectors Guide, Over 50 Years of TV GUIDE, Covers and Features, Celebrating An Icon, Over 50 Years of TV GUIDE, Covering TV History).

    Sherman Hemsley, who played pushy, egotistical George Jefferson on The Jeffersons for ten years, played a similar character on "Amen", as an insufferable deacon (and lawyer) whose father had founded the First Community Church of Philadelphia, and who intended to keep it under his thumb. Unfortunately the new minister, Reverend Reuben Gregory, played by actor Clifton Davis,had other ideas and every week, he quietly deflated the strutting deacon. Both, of course, really had the church's best interests at heart. In the series, "Goode Behavior", Sherman Hemsley played Willie Goode, who was a paroled con artist whose freedom was contingent on his living with Franklin, the son he had not seen in fifteen years, who was played by Dorien Wilson. Willie moved in under house arrest-complete with ankle bracelet-and forced a reluctant Franklin to convert his cherished and newly refurbished study into a bedroom for his dad. (The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present, Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, Ballantine Books, New York, 2007).

    July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |