Hemsley, a comic actor who vaulted from a supporting role on Norman Lear's groundbreaking 1970s sitcom "All in the Family" to a lead role as George in the spinoff "The Jeffersons," was found dead Tuesday in El Paso.
Sherman Hemsley, an actor best known for his overbearing sitcom roles, notably the upwardly mobile and bigoted African American George Jefferson in the long-running show “The Jeffersons” and the egotistic minister in “Amen,” has died in El Paso. He was 74.
The death was confirmed by his agent, Todd Frank. No details were available.
Mr. Hemsley, who had a home in El Paso, grew up in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, quit high school and served in the Air Force before becoming a mainstay of a prominent black theater company in New York.
By the 1980s, television had made him the most visible and successful black TV actor after Bill Cosby.
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In 1973, Mr. Hemsley debuted as George Jefferson on the Norman Lear sitcom “All in the Family,” playing the bombastic paterfamilias who integrates a Queens neighborhood lorded over by Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor).
Jefferson, who owned a dry-cleaning store, was the black counterpart to Bunker’s working-class racist, and the chemistry between the two performers allowed them to spew bluster and ignorance in comic droves.
Like other secondary characters from “All in the Family,” the Jeffersons spun off into their own series that aired on CBS from 1975 to 1985.
In the new show, George Jefferson’s business success in dry cleaning allows him to move his family into a luxury high-rise.
Financial security didn’t stop George from bickering with his wife, Louise (Isabel Sanford), or their son, Lionel (Mike Evans and later Damon Evans).
The program’s theme song, “Movin’ on Up,” conveyed the comic situations sparked by George’s boorish and argumentative nature amid their new neighbors. Suspicious of white people, he doesn’t hesitate to call them “honkies.”
Mr. Hemsley said the role was counter to his own disposition, telling The Washington Post that Jefferson “seems like a wild man to me.” He was raised by a single mother who worked in a factory, and his early life was a struggle,
He fell in with gangs but quit after he was abandoned during a fight broken up by the police. He dropped out of school, joined the Air Force and became a desk clerk based in South Korea and Japan.
He attended a dramatic-arts school in Philadelphia and joined the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company acting workshop in New York.
Critics applauded Mr. Hemsley’s supporting role on Broadway in the 1970 musical comedy “Purlie,” and was soon hired by Lear to play George Jefferson. Hemsley later played Deacon Ernest Frye in “Amen,” which aired on NBC from 1986 to 1991.