Sherman Hemsley, who died of natural causes at his home in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday, had a lengthy career, but in the minds of most TV-watching Americans, he will always be George Jefferson.
Jefferson, the successful owner of a chain of New York City dry cleaners, made his debut in the fourth season of producer Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family.”
He was Archie Bunker’s next-door neighbor, and his appearance on the show in 1973 provided comedic fodder as the two headstrong bigots tried to outdo each other in insults and prejudices.
Two years later, Hemsley and his TV wife, Isabel Sanford, “moved on up” to their own spinoff series “The Jeffersons,” which aired for 11 seasons on CBS before it was abruptly canceled in 1985. It still stands as the longest-running series starring a predominantly black cast on American TV.
In the show’s first episode, “A Friend in Need,” the Jeffersons got to know the neighbors in their Upper East Side high-rise apartment building. Though some assumed that the couple were simply hired help and not actual apartment owners.
Though Hemsley was nominated for an Emmy only once for his role as George Jefferson, much of what he brought to the character lived on long past the series, including Jefferson’s prowess on the dance floor, as demonstrated by this clip from the show’s second season premiere.
CBS’ cancellation of the series in 1985 was abrupt, leaving fans deprived of giving George Jefferson a proper send-off.
Later sitcom creators did their best to give viewers what they wanted. Besides a two-episode appearance on the short-lived comedy series “E/R” in 1984, George and Weezy turned up again 10 years later on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
They appeared in two episodes, one which featured the couple in counseling and another, the series finale, showing them debating whether or not to buy the house that was the show’s main set.