The actor Sherman Hemsley, who played the very funny and the very memorable George Jefferson on the 1970s sitcom, The Jeffersons, died today at 74 years old in Texas.
The Jefferson premiered in 1974 and was groundbreaking. The show was not only funny, it broke barriers by displaying an affluent and assertive Black businessman and entrepreneur, played by Hemsley, who dealt with others on his own often strong-willed terms. Hemsley played Jefferson with a strutting confidence and ambition rarely seen by the few Black male actors on TV during the 1970s.
The Jeffersons was a spinoff of All in the Family, a show starring the late Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. The Jeffersons were the Bunkers’ next door neighbors and Hemsley appeared on All in the Family as a strong character who often took on Bunker, an outspoken working class bigot. All in the Family was set in Astoria, Queens and The Jeffersons was set on the upper east side of Manhattan — indicating how Jefferson and his family “moved on up” the social ladder. Hemsley’s character had worked his way up from being a janitor to becoming the owner of five dry cleaning stores in New York City along with his wife Louise, played by the late Isabel Sanford. In doing so, The Jeffersons showed Black characters in roles never before seen on any television sitcom previously including the first interracial marriage shown on American prime-time television (played by Roxie Roker as Helen Willis and Franklin Cover as Tom Willis).
The Jeffersons remained on the air for 11 years from 1974 to 1985.
Hemsley also played Deacon Ernest Frye on the show Amen, which ran from 1986 to 1991. Hemsley was not married and had no children. The cause of his death has not yet been disclosed.