August 1st, 2012
Television legend Hemsley passes away at the age of 74
Actor Sherman Hemsley, best known for his portrayal of George Jefferson on the hit sitcom “The Jeffersons”, passed away on July 24th.
Sherman Alexander Hemsley (February 1, 1938 - July 24, 2012) was an American actor, most famous for his role as George Jefferson on the CBS television series “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons”, and as Deacon Ernest Frye on the NBC series “Amen”. He also played Earl Sinclair’s horrifying boss, a Triceratops named B.P. Richfield, on the Jim Henson sitcom “Dinosaurs”.
Hemsley was born and raised in South Philadelphia by his mother, who worked in a lamp factory. He didn’t meet his father until he was 14. He attended Barrat Middle School, Central High School for 9th Grade and Bok Technical High School for 10th, when he dropped out of school and joined the United States Air Force, where he served for four years. On leaving the Air Force, he returned to Philadelphia where he worked for the Post Office during the day while attending the Academy of Dramatic Arts at night. He then moved to New York, continuing to work for the Post Office during the day while working as an actor at night.
Sherman Hemsley performed with local groups in Philadelphia before moving to New York to study with Lloyd Richards at the Negro Ensemble Company. Shortly after, he joined Vinnette Carroll’s Urban Arts Company. He made his Broadway debut in “Purlie” and toured with the show for a year.
While Hemsley was on Broadway with “Purlie”, Norman Lear called him in 1971 to play the role of George Jefferson on his burgeoning new sitcom, “All in the Family”. Hemsley was reluctant to leave his theatre role, but Lear told him that he would hold the role open for him. Hemsley joined the cast two years later. The characters of Hemsley and co-star Isabel Sanford were secondary on “All in the Family”, but were given their own spin-off series, “The Jeffersons”, less than two years after Hemsley made his debut on the show. Such was Hemsley’s and Sanford’s compatibility and credibility as a married couple that no one seemed to notice or care that in real life Sanford was twenty years older than Hemsley. “The Jeffersons” proved to be one of Lear’s most successful shows, enjoying a run of eleven seasons through 1985.
Though Hemsley was largely typecast as George Jefferson, he continued to work steadily after the show’s cancellation. He teamed up with the show’s original cast members when “The Jeffersons” moved to Broadway for a brief period.
Hemsley joined the cast of NBC’s “Amen” in 1986 as Ernest Frye, an unscrupulous church deacon much like his George Jefferson character. The show enjoyed a run of five seasons, ending in 1991. Hemsley then was a voice actor in the ABC live-action puppet series Dinosaurs, where he played Bradley P. Richfield, main character Earl’s sadistic boss. The show ran for five seasons, ending in 1994.
Hemsley largely retired from television acting, although he and Isabel Sanford appeared together in the late 1990s and in the early 2000s, reprising their roles in guest spots on television programs such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and commercials for The Gap, Old Navy and Denny’s. He and Sanford also made a cameo appearance in the film Sprung. They continued to work together on occasion until Sanford began having health problems leading to her death in 2004.
In recent years, Hemsley made a voice appearance as himself in the animated comedy “Family Guy”. He appeared in the film American Pie Presents: The Book of Love. In 2011, he reprised his role as George Jefferson once again, along with Marla Gibbs as Florence Johnston in Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne”.
In 1989, Hemsley, who had previously been a jazz keyboardist, released a single titled “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”. This was followed in 1992 with Dance, an album of rhythm and blues music. In 1999, Hemsley collaborated with Yes lead singer Jon Anderson on an album titled Festival of Dreams, which was not released.
Hemsley was a shy and intensely private man who was characterized by some as reclusive. He avoided the limelight and little of his personal life was public knowledge beyond the facts that he never married and he had no children. In 2003, Hemsley granted a rare video interview to the Archive of American Television, saying that, “It (the George Jefferson character) was hard for me. But he was the character. I had to do it.”
Hemsley’s best known live television appearance was on Soul Train in 1992, performing his song “Eyes in the Dark” from his ‘Dance’ album.
On July 24, 2012, Hemsley died at his home in El Paso, Texas, apparently of natural causes. He was 74 years old.