Sherman Hemsley dies at 74; star of TV’s ‘The Jeffersons’

Sherman Hemsley, who was rooted in the minds of millions of television viewers as Archie Bunker’s bombastic black neighbor, George Jefferson, in”All in the Family” and later as the star of his own long-running sitcom, “The Jeffersons,” has died. He was 74.

The actor, who had a home in El Paso, was found dead Tuesday by the El Paso Sheriff’s Department, his agent, Todd Frank, told The Times. No cause of death was given.

Hemsley vaulted from relative obscurity as a New York stage actor to prime-time celebrity in 1973 when producer Norman Lear cast him in “All in the Family,” the controversial comedy that starred Carroll O’Connor as the bigoted patriarch of a working-class Queens household.

As George Jefferson, Hemsley was a burr in Archie’s side, who loved to tease his neighbor about his prejudices. He appeared on the hit show from 1973 to 1975, when he left to star in the Lear spinoff “The Jeffersons” with Isabel Sanford, who played his wife, Louise.

“The Jeffersons” ran for 11 seasons on CBS, making Hemsley one of the medium’s most widely watched black actors.

“Sherman was one of the most generous co-stars I have ever worked with,” said Marla Gibbs, who played the Jeffersons’ smart-mouthed maid, Florence Johnston. “He happily set me up so that I could slam him, and I did the same for him. I shall miss him deeply.”

In 1970 Lear was scouting for talent on Broadway when he saw Hemsley, who was playing the role of Gitlow in “Purlie,” a musical set in the Jim Crow South. Hemsley auditioned for the producer the next day, but he was not hired.

George Jefferson had been mentioned on “All in the Family” as the husband of Edith Bunker’s close friend, Louise Jefferson (played by Sanford), but did not appear until 1973, when Lear finally brought Hemsley onto the show.

“The cocky energy of the guy was totally in sync with the offstage image we had created of George,” Lear told the Albany Times Union in 1999.

When George Jefferson turned a small dry-cleaning establishment into a successful chain, he moved from Queens to a luxury high-rise on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. His entry into the ranks of the nouveau riche provided the starting point for “The Jeffersons.”

“I loved the character because I knew people like that,” Hemsley said of George Jefferson in a 2003 interview for the Archive of American Television.

Hemsley was born Feb. 1, 1938, in Philadelphia and grew up on the city’s tough south side. He was raised by a single mother who worked long hours in a factory. As a teenager he belonged to a gang and became a “high school kick out.” After leaving school, he served four years in the Air Force in Japan and Korea before returning to his hometown, where he worked as a mail sorter in the post office.

His day job enabled him to pursue a childhood dream of acting, which was sparked by his portrayal of fire in a school sketch for fire prevention week.

“I was at home on the stage immediately. Of course I hammed it up. They threw water on me and I rolled on the floor and said ‘Foiled again!’ ” he told the Associated Press in 1986.

In Philadelphia he joined a theater company, where he gained experience in a variety of roles, including Willy Loman’s son, Happy, in “Death of a Salesman”and Archibald in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.”

In 1967, he transferred to a post office in New York, trying out for acting jobs in his spare time. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company’s advanced acting workshop and studied with Lloyd Richards, who directed Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway.

His television career spanned four decades, with guest appearances on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Family Matters.”

In the late 1990s, he began dividing his time between Los Angeles and El Paso. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

After “The Jeffersons” was canceled in 1985, he played Ernest Frye, a holier-than-thou church deacon and lawyer, in the sitcom “Amen,” which ran on NBC from 1986 to 1991. He voiced the character B.P. Richfield on “Dinosaurs,” the puppet sitcom about a domesticated family of prehistoric creatures that aired on ABC from 1991 to 1994. From 1996 to 1997 he starred in the short-lived UPN series “Goode Behavior,” playing charming ex-con Willie Goode.

None of those characters had the broad appeal of George Jefferson. Years after that show ended, Hemsley frequently encountered fans who asked him to reenact George’s famous strut from the show’s opening credits. Hemsley said it was inspired by the Philly Slop, a dance he learned as a boy in Philadelphia.

But he insisted that in most other ways he and his character were very different. “I don’t slam doors in people’s faces, and I’m not a bigot,” he told USA Today in 1999. “I’m just an old hippie. You know, peace and love.”

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