Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sherman Hemsley Moves On Up

Sherman Hemsley, best known as George Jefferson on The Jeffersons, died today at the age of 74.

Sherman Hemsley was born on 1 February 1938 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He dropped out of school to enlist in the United States Air Force. After four years of service, he returned to Philadelphia where he worked for the United States Postal Service for eight years. While working at the post office he studied acting. He trained at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Sherman Hemsley appeared in various productions in Philadelphia, then moved to New York City to pursue acting there. He studied with Lloyd Richards at the Negro Ensemble Company. Afterwards he joined Vinnette Carroll's Urban Arts Company. There he appeared in such plays as But Never Jam TodayCroesus, The Lottery, and Old Judge Mose is Dead. Mr.Hemsley made his debut on Broadway in the role of Gitlow in Purlie in 1970. He played the same role in a revival on Broadway in 1973.

It was in 1971, while Sherman Hemsley was still appearing in Purlie, Norman Lear contacted him about playing George Jefferson in All in the Family. At the time Mr. Hemsley did not want to leave Purlie, but Norman Lear told him he would hold the role open for him. It was then in 1973 that Sherman Hemsley made his first appearance on All in the Family as George Jefferson. George and his wife Louise were next door neighbours to main characters Archie and Edith Bunker on All in the Family. George and Louise proved so popular that they were spun off into their own series, The Jeffersons.

The Jeffersons would prove to be a hit series, running for eleven years. In fact, the show was so beloved that CBS found itself in the midst of a controversy when it cancelled the show in 1985 without allowing them to make a proper series finale episode. Regardless, it went onto a highly successful run in syndication. The Jeffersons was not just popular, it was also ground breaking. It was the first show to centre on an upscale, African American family, as well as the first to feature an interracial married couple.

While The Jeffersons was on, Mr. Hemsley appeared elsewhere on television and on the big screen as well. He guest starred on The Incredible Hulk, Fantasy Island, and The Twilight Zone, and appeared in TV productions of Purlie and Alice in Wonderland. He also appeared in the film Love at First Bite (1979).  Following The Jeffersons Sherman Hemsley appeared in the films Stewardess School (1985), Ghost Fever (1987), and Club Fed (1990). In 1986 Mr. Hemsley played the lead character, Deacon Ernest Frye, on the series Amen. Deacon Frye was a similar character to George Jefferson, except not quite as loud and a bit more unscrupulous. The show proved to be a hit and ran for five years.

In the Nineties Mr. Hemsley would be part of another popular sitcom. He provided the voice of J. P. Richfield, the overbearing boss of main character Earl Sinclair on Dinosaurs. The series ran for three years. He also played the main character, Willie Goode, on the short lived Goode Behaviour. He guest starred on such shows as Designing Women, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, Burke's Law, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (as Toyman), Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (twice reprising his role as George Jefferson on the role). Clueless, and The Hughleys. He appeared in the films Mr. Nanny (1993), Home of Angels (1994), The Misery Brothers (1995), Sprung (1997), Jane Austen's Mafia! (1998--once more as George Jefferson), and Screwed (2000).

In the Naughts Mr. Hemsley appeared in the films For the Love of a Dog (2008) and Hanging in Hedo (2008). He guest starred on The Family Guy and The House of Payne (as George Jefferson). He was a regular on the short lived series Clunkers.

The Jeffersons formed a large part of my childhood and it was one of those shows I watched regularly. I rather expect the reason many people liked the show as the same reason I did:  the chemistry between stars Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley as Louise and George Jefferson. The two complimented each other perfectly. It is understandable why Norman Lear held the role of George Jefferson for Sherman Hemsley, as it is hard seeing anyone else in the role. Sherman Hemsley played George perfectly. George was loud, opinionated, stubborn, and at times unscrupulous. Isabel Sanford's Louise, who was patient, understanding, and stubborn in her own way (she really had to be to be married to George), was a perfect match for him. Along with a great supporting cast, Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley was much of the reason The Jeffersons was a hit.

Indeed, Sherman Hemsley was a uniquely gifted actor when it came to comedy. He had perfect timing and could generate laughs with just a look. While best known for George Jefferson, Mr. Hemsley could take any character and make him funny. The character of J. P. Richfield on Dinosaurs was in many ways very different from George, yet through his voice Mr. Hemsley was able to endow him with a personality all his own. He truly was a great comic actor.

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