July 25, 2012

Sherman Hemsley, Primetime Emmy Winner, Star of 1970s Comedy The Jeffersons and More

Hemsley also starred in the comedies Amen and Goode Behavior, and had numerous guest roles on other series.

Sherman Hemsley, an actor best known for the role of George Jefferson on the iconic CBS television series All in the Family, and on the spin-off series The Jeffersons, died July 24, 2012, in El Paso Texas. He was 74.

No specific cause was reported at the time of his passing.

Hemsley was reportedly performing in the Broadway musical Purlie in 1971 when he received a phone call from Norman Lear, who wanted to cast him as George Jefferson in All in the Family. Hemsley was unable to accept at the time, but Lear held the role open, and two years later the actor joined the series.

All in the Family broke ground in its depiction of issues previously considered unsuitable for U.S. network television comedy, including racism, homosexuality, rape, miscarriage, abortion and cancer. The show was ranked number one in the yearly Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976 and became the first television series to reach the milestone of having topped the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years — a mark later matched by The Cosby Show and surpassed by American Idol.

Lear then created the spin-off series for Hemsley and co-star Isabel Sanford, and The Jeffersons went on to enjoy an 11-year run, through 1985 — the longest-running sitcom with a predominantly African American cast in the history of American television.

In 1986, Hemsley was cast as Ernest Frye in the NBC series Amen, and in 1991, joined the voice cast for the ABC comedic live-action puppet series Dinosaurs, playing the role of sadistic dinosaur boss Bradley P. Richfield.

Hemsley was born February 1, 1938, in Philadelphia on. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to join the Air Force and was stationed in Asia after the Korean War. Following his discharge from the service, he returned to Philadelphia and found work at the post office by day. At night, he took classes at Philadelphia’s Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In 1967, Hemsley moved to New York, where he joined the Negro Ensemble Company. He also studied with actor and director Lloyd Richards and performed with the Urban Arts Corps. He also appeared in Off Broadway productions. Stage work followed, and he often received critical praise for his comedic flair.

Years after it left the airwaves, The Jeffersons remained popular through syndication on Nick at Nite and TV Land. The renewed interest led to guest appearances on several TV series, including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Wayans Brothers and The Hughleys. In 1996, he starred in Goode Behavior, a comedy on the UPN network. In 2011, he appeared as George Jefferson on the TNT comedy House of Payne.

Hemsley won a Primetime Emmy Award in 1984 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, for The Jeffersons.

In 2012, he was announced as an inductee to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. Because he was unable to appear in person at that time, his induction was postponed. He will now be inducted posthumously.

Hemsley had the distinction of being interviewed by the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television.

The full interview is available here.

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