Sherman Hemsley strutted into TV history as George Jefferson
Let us now, in our hearts or with our bodies, do a funky little dance, a cocky little walk, in praise and memory of Sherman Hemsley, who played George Jefferson for a dozen years in the 1970s and 1980s -- and in scattered cameos thereafter -- and died Tuesday at age 74.
As a recurring character on “All in the Family,” Jefferson served as a kind of counterweight, if not exactly a counterpart, to Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker: an irascible, abrasive, acerbic, sharp-tongued, comic antihero, conservative by temperament, protective of his space and resistant to change. (George’s mistrust of white people was not quite the same as Archie’s fear of a black planet, but their jokes at the expense of each other’s race, and each other, did achieve a sort of ping-pong balance.) The spun-off series, “The Jeffersons,” which saw George and wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) moving “on up to the East Side/To a deluxe apartment in the sky,” ran from 1975 to 1985, logged 253 episodes, and made the actor all but synonymous with his role.
Born in 1938, and raised in South Philadelphia (while contemporary Bill Cosby was growing up on the city’s north side), Hemsley had worked a lot on the New York stage before Norman Lear saw him on Broadway in the musical “Purlie” and cast him as George Jefferson. (The part preceded Hemsley, but only as an off-camera voice.) He was then in his mid-40s.
After “The Jeffersons,” there were five seasons of NBC’s “Amen” as a less than scrupulous church deacon and one of UPN’s “Goode Behavior” in which he played a paroled con man living with his son. He was also a voice on “Dinosaurs,” the ABC live-action puppet series. He stepped back into George Jefferson for cameos on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and, just last year, in Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and in commercials for the Gap, Old Navy and Denny’s. In the mid-1990s, there was a reunion, “The Real Live Jeffersons,” in which the main cast performed old scripts onstage.
“The Jeffersons” was a comedy of African American advancement and empowerment -- George owned a string of dry cleaning shops -- whose characters took success as their due without making race beside the point. It wasn’t exactly an issue on the show, which was less of a social weapon than was “All in the Family,” but it was a subject, which it rarely is anymore -- and not because those matters are all settled now. At their mildest, Lear’s shows (including two other great black sitcoms,"Sanford and Son” and “Good Times,” which preceded and overlapped “The Jeffersons”) at least acknowledged inequalities and frictions having to do with race and class and gender, though they did most of their business in the usual sitcomical arena of conflicting personalities and plans gone awry.
George was also a less domineering husband than was Archie; there was equality in the bickering between George and Louise -- “Wheezie” -- as there was between George and Marla Gibbs’ maid-of-no-work, Florence. He got at least as good as he gave. (A typical exchange: “Florence, why don’t you go check on the turkey?” “Why? I can see you fine from right here.”) But there was also real partnership and affection between the spouses: It was a solid marriage, and not a codependent one.
Small and energetic, delivering his lines in a rasping bark, dapper in a three-piece suit or plaid sports jacket, Hemsley-as-George had the scrappiness you see in little dogs when they’re around big ones. But the initial grumpiness of the character -- “The first five years I would hardly ever smile,” he recalled in a 2003 video interview with the television academy’s Archive of American Television -- eventually gave way to something more nuanced and less habitually aggressive: to a kind of sharp-edged self-delight. Whatever else is going on around him, you feel, it is good to be George Jefferson.
And so we will remember Sherman Hemsley not only for the doors George slammed on his neighbors, coming or going -- “That was really hard for me,” said Hemsley, who termed himself “an old hippie” -- but for his life-loving, loose-waisted dancing -- a James Brown scrabbling of feet mixed with a Rufus Thomas cocking of the elbows that looks at once crazy and cool. (Hemsley cut an album of dance music himself, which is not all that unusual for a television actor. Less expected was his taste for the progressive rock of Gentle Giant, Yes, Gong and Nektar. He was a music nerd; I used to see him at my local record store, talking new releases with the clerks.)
Above all we well remember that walk: a bouncing, shoulders-back, cuffs-shooting, South Philadelphia strut: “We used to practice these walks when I was growing up,” he recalled. It was a kind of armor and an expression of attitude, he said, as if to say, “Yeah, it’s me.”
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