American actor Sherman Hemsley passed away at the age of 74 on Tuesday July 24th. Known for his roles as George Jefferson in The Jeffersons and Deacon Ernest Frye in Amen, Hemsley's acting career spanned four decades on stage and screen. His work on The Jeffersons helped it become the longest running sitcom in TV history with a predominant African-American cast.
Born in Philadelphia, PA, Hemsley decided to drop out of high school and join the Air Force. Upon his return, he began working as an actor at night while maintaining a job at the US Postal Service during the day. After moving to New York, he made his Broadway debut as Gitlow in the musical Purlie in 1972. He was noticed by television writer/producer Norman Lear and offered the role of neighbor George Jefferson on All in the Family. In took Lear two years to convince Hemsley to leave Broadway and join the show. Teaming with Isabel Sanford as his wife, Hemsley would get his own spinoff show less than two years after entering the television sitcom world. The Jeffersons portrayed an affluent couple moving from a working class neighborhood in Queens, NY to an upscale apartment in Manhattan. The show would be broadcast for 11 seasons and 253 episodes from 1975-85, surpassing even the length of All in the Family. A year after The Jeffersons was cancelled unexpectedly, Hemsley joined the cast of Amen. Set in his hometown, Hemsley played Deacon Ernest Frye who at times carried the irreverent spirit of George Jefferson. Amen ran for 110 episodes and five seasons from 1986-91.
After Amen, Hemsley didn't have recurring on-screen television role. He still made occasional guest appearances on popular sitcoms and also did voice acting for the short live puppet sitcom Dinosaurs. Hemsley also appeared in several films in the 90s including Mr. Nanny, Sprung, and Senseless. In 2005, he reprised the role of George Jefferson in a cameo on an episode of the Family Guy. Then just within the last year, he teamed with Marla Gibbs (housemaid Florence on The Jeffersons) on an episode of Tyler Perry's House of Payne to play George one final time.
My memories of Sherman Hemsley are very treasured. As a child, I frequently stayed with my grandmother after school and for visits when my parents just needed a break from me. She was and is a big fan of The Jeffersons. When I think of staying with her as a kid, I remember her howling while watching the show. Even in the early 90s when I was in high school, I remember her staying up until the wee hours of the morning just to catch a rerun and have a good laugh. Of course, her watching rubbed off on me as I would occasionally come across reruns myself at home and stop to watch George strut or to hear a witty comeback from Florence. I also loved the later openings to the show with George walking on Mr Bentley's back and getting a pillow upside the head from "Weezy." And of course, the "Movin' On Up" theme song is one of the most recognizable in television history. The Jeffersons is one of those great shows that you simply can't imagine anyone else playing the lead character but Sherman Hemsley.
Based on the fond memories and hearty laughs we all have enjoyed over the years, you deserve a deluxe apartment in heaven, Mr. Hemsley.