R.I.P. Sherman Hemsley
Sherman Hemsley—who for more than a dozen years provided a comically volatile, cantankerous voice for African-Americans as George Jefferson—has died, according to a report first broken by TMZ. Hemsley is believed to have died of natural causes at the age of 74, though details are still pending.
Hemsley's most iconic character was created specifically for him, after All In The Family producer Norman Lear, seeking a match for Archie Bunker's uncompromising, wheezing racism, honed in on the actor as someone who could convincingly go toe to toe. At the time, Hemsley was busy with Broadway, so Lear actually introduced the Jeffersons to the Bunkers two years before Hemsley officially joined the cast, leaving the door open for him by pairing Isabel Sanford's "Weezie" with George's brother Henry (played by Mel Stewart). The odd setup and constant explanations for why George was never around—which mostly had to do with George not wanting to consort with white people—all ended up being worth it once Hemsley finally arrived in 1973. Immediately it was clear that George Jefferson was the perfect foil for Archie Bunker: He was every bit as stubborn, bigoted, and yet strangely loveable in his awfulness, and within two years the Jeffersons moved on up out of Queens and into Manhattan—and onto their very own, equally lasting show.
As on All In The Family, Lear got a lot of mileage out of George Jefferson being a racist buffoon, one who routinely derided white people as "honkies" and detested the perfectly pleasant mixed-race couple who were always hanging around, with George generally acting horribly and self-servingly at every opportunity. But while the show focused plenty on satirically exploring whatever social malady was being tossed around in the writers' room that week, over time the sharp comedic interplay between the actors—particularly the darts lobbed between Hemsley and Marla Gibbs' withering maid Florence—shaped the show into a more farcical and character-driven affair, with Hemsley seamlessly shifting from jerk to underdog to sympathetic, loving family man, often within the same episode.
That easing off of the political and emphasizing the personal—to say nothing of all the awesome put-downs—made the show a hit, garnering many Emmy nominations for Hemsley, Sanford, and Gibbs (though only a single win for Sanford), and keeping it on the air through 1985. It wasn't until a scheduling switch that year that its ratings finally plummeted, with the cast saying in many interviews since that the cancellation came as a total surprise they were only informed about secondhand. The abrupt death of The Jeffersons, along with its obvious lasting impact, has since inspired numerous revivals, including a live-stage reunion in the '90s, and Hemsley and Sanford reprising their roles on shows they paved the way for such as The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and Tyler Perry's House Of Payne.
Naturally, it was difficult for anyone to see Hemsley as anyone but George Jefferson in the years since, so for the rest of his career, he mostly played variations on that character. Right after The Jeffersons' demise, Hemsley signed on to star in NBC's Amen, playing a church deacon who was every bit as selfish, scheming (and really bad at it), and forever unable to suffer fools. And when that sitcom wrapped its five-season run, Hemsley was already part of ABC's Dinosaurs, lending his surly, snarling voice to its boss character, Bradley P. Richfield—George Jefferson if he were a primitive, puppet dinosaur.
Hemsley's final starring sitcom role was in the short-lived Goode Behavior, a 1996 series that cast Hemsley as a recently paroled con artist making life difficult for his college professor son. It barely lasted a season (even given the lowered expectations of UPN) and more or less marked the end of Hemsley's regular series work, although he would continue to pop up and bestow a little grandfatherly benediction to many other Jeffersons successors with predominately black casts, such as Family Matters, Sister Sister, and The Hughleys. Perhaps mercifully, Hemsley's attempt to return to the rotation—by voicing the talking horse in a Mr. Ed reboot—failed to make it past the pilot stage. But in 2006, Hemsley found another, equally unlikely way back onto weekly television by starring in the sixth season of VH1's "celebreality" series The Surreal Life, where he mostly stayed out of trouble by sleeping and eating, and refusing to get caught up in whatever idiotic arguments C.C. DeVille or Alexis Arquette might be having that day.
Outside of TV, Hemsley had a small, scattershot film career, turning up primarily in often-junky comedies like Mr. Nanny, Love At First Bite, Mafia!, Sprung, Screwed, Stewardess School, and most recently, American Pie Presents: The Book Of Love. Some of a certain generation may also have (slightly nightmarish) memories of him as the Mouse in Irwin Allen's bizarre Alice In Wonderland TV movie (where he co-starred alongside Ringo Starr's Mock Turtle, Sammy Davis Jr.'s Caterpillar, Ernest Borgnine's Lion, Telly Savalas' Cheshire Cat, and Scott Baio's Pat the Pig, among many others). Hemsley, a former jazz keyboardist, was also a huge fan of prog-rock bands like Yes, Gong, and Nektar—and if you've never read Daevid Allen's awesome story about meeting Hemsley in the '70s, now's the time—and he even cut his own record with Yes frontman Jon Anderson in 1999 that, sadly, never saw release. He did, however, put out a couple of singles, including 1989's strange, hectoring "Ain't That A Kick In The Head."
Although Hemsley never truly broke away from being George Jefferson—to the point where we're guessing that at least 50 percent of the comments on this article will be some variation on "Guess he finally moved on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky"—perhaps the best thing about him is, he never really seemed to try all that hard to do so, or regret when he didn't. You could say that Hemsley influenced generations of black-led entertainment, that he imbued African-Americans with a sense of bravado during a turbulent time period, that he brought the "angry black man" into living rooms to confront the nation's Archie Bunkers—and all of that is true on some level. But throughout it all, Hemsley just seemed to be having a pretty great ride doing his own thing and cracking off some well-timed insults, and both TV and comedy are richer for it.