Sherman Hemsley will best be remembered for his incomparable portrayal of George Jefferson, the short, militant, sharp-toungued, chauvinistic, politically incorrect, HNIC on the sitcom The Jeffersons.
That is HNIC…Head Nigger In Charge…not Nigga…but NIGGER…’cause we are talking about the 1970’s when TV shows were not afraid to deal with the issues of racism and stereotype on both sides of the color line. The Jeffersons were a spin off of All In The Family, a show that set the standard for pushing the racial envelope and many other boundaries that unfortunately are not adequately addressed on TV today.
The Jefferson’s were originally the Bunker’s neighbors. While Louise and Edith were friends, George was Archie’s Black nemesis. The racially charged exchange between these two characters made for classically hilarious television. It was also socially necessary television. Coming out of the civil rights era, Black folks needed to see strong characters on TV who challenged the system and pushed back against injustice. We needed to see George get right up in WHITEY’S face and tell it like it is, and he never failed to deliver. If you were Black and grew up in the 70’s you followed The Jeffersons as they left Mr. Bunker’s neighborhood and moved to their ritzy apartment on the East Side with the white doorman. It is probably be safe to say that some of everybody watched The Jeffersons, including HONKIES, as George would often say. White people needed to see this show as well. Somebody had to put it out there that the times were changing and that the Jim Crow racist behavior of the past was no longer acceptable. George Jefferson was that guy. Certainly, everybody knew the theme song…Movin’ On Up…the new manifesto for the upwardly mobile Black incorporated into a nice little ditty that you could hum along to. The series ran for 11 seasons, so many of us literally grew up with George and Weezy and took our cues on how to deal with THE MAN from George.
The Jeffersons was a ground breaking series and George Jefferson was a ground breaking role. Not only did The Jeffersons hold the distinction of being the longest running Black sitcom for almost forty years, with 253 episodes produced, until Tyler Perry’s House Of Payne recently surpassed this milestone. George Jefferson was a Black male character unlike any ever seen on TV. He was a proud, successful entrepreneur, who was cocky, opinionated and determined not to be pushed around by anybody, especially THE MAN. This character paralleled in many ways the strong Black male characters you would see in films at that time. It wasn’t only what George said, but how he said it and how he carried himself, with a swaggering arrogance that was funny and powerful. That is why you watched, to see what George would say and do next. Hemsley played George so superbly that you ended up loving him in spite of himself. You also watched because the show was very funny. You laughed your ass off and came back every week religiously until the show was cancelled, and then watched it in syndication, then bought the DVD’s and watched it all over again. George Jefferson made us laugh, and for that and all of the other reasons stated I will always love this character and this show.
Sherman Helmsley started out performing with local groups in Philadelphia before moving to New York to study with Lloyd Richards at the Negro Ensemble Company. Shortly after, he joined Vinnette Carroll’s Urban Arts Company appearing in these productions: But Never Jam Today, The Lottery, Old Judge Mose is Dead, Moon On A Rainbow Shawl, Step Lively Boys, Croesus, and The Witch. He made his Broadway debut in Purlie and toured with the show for a year. In the summer of 1972 he joined the Vinnette Carroll musical Sorry, I Can’t Cope ensemble in Toronto, followed a month later in the American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater. This production had Hemsley in Act I performing the solo “Lookin’ Over From Your Side” and in “Sermon” in Act II.
Hemsley’s big break came when All in the Family producer Norman Lear saw him in the musical Purlie on Broadway in 1970 and offered him the role of George Jefferson.
However, Hemsley did not want to break his commitment to Purile. So Lear kept the role waiting for him until he had finished with the musical. As a result, George’s character was mentioned many times but did not appear in the show until 1973. Hemsley played Jefferson on All In the Family from 1973 until 1975.
Hemsley was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for The Jeffersons and won an NAACP Image Award in 1982. He teamed up with the show’s original cast members when The Jeffersons moved to Broadway for a brief period.
Hemsley also starred in two other sitcoms: Amen (1986-91), in which he played deacon Ernest Frye at a church in Philadelphia, and Goode Behavior (1996-97), in which he played Willie Goode, a paroled con artist. He also voiced Bradley P. Richfield in the family sitcom Dinosaurs.
RIP Sherman Hemsley.