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Sherman Alexander Hemsley, who is rooted in the minds of Black American television viewers as Archie Bunker’s bombastic Black neighbor, George Jefferson, in “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” and as Deacon Frye in “Amen,” died Tuesday of natural causes. He was 74.
The actor, who had a home in El Paso, Texas, was found dead by the El Paso Sheriff’s Department.
Widely watched actor
Hemsley “moved on up” from working at the post office to acting on New York Broadway stages to prime-time celebrity in 1973 when producer Norman Lear cast him in “All in the Family,” the comedy that starred Carroll O’Connor as the bigoted patriarch of a White working-class Queens, N.Y. household.
As George Jefferson, Bunker’s Black and proud neighbor, Hemsley was a thorn in Bunker’s side. Hemsley appeared on the hit show from 1973 to 1975, when he left to star in the Lear spin-off “The Jeffersons” with Isabel Sanford, who played his wife, Louise – nicknamed “Weezy” – the only person who could put him in check. “The Jeffersons” ran for 11 seasons on CBS, making Hemsley one of TV’s most widely watched Black actors.
Military, post office
Hemsley was born Feb. 1, 1938, in Philadelphia and grew up on the city’s tough Southside. His father worked at a printing press; he was raised by a single mother who worked long hours in a factory.
As a teenager, he belonged to a gang and became a “high school kickout,” as he described it. He quit his local gang after they abandoned him to police after they broke up a fight with a rival gang.
After quitting school, he served four years as a clerk in the Air Force in Japan and Korea before returning to his hometown, where he worked as a mail sorter in the post office. His day job enabled him to pursue a childhood dream of acting, which was sparked by his portrayal of “fire’’ in a school sketch for Fire Prevention Week.
“I was at home on the stage immediately. Of course, I hammed it up. They threw water on me and I rolled on the floor and said ‘Foiled again!’” he told the Associated Press in 1986.
In Philadelphia, he joined a Black theater company, where he gained experience in a variety of roles. From there, he was selected in 1967 to join the Negro Ensemble Company’s advanced acting workshop in New York – while still working in local post office. (Actors John Amos, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson also studied in the Ensemble.)
The right man
In 1970, Lear was scouting for talent on Broadway when he saw Hemsley, who was playing the role of Gitlow in “Purlie,” a musical set in the Jim Crow South. Hemsley auditioned and got the job, but told Lear he preferred steady money from theater work – and his day job at the post office.
“George Jefferson” had been mentioned but never seen on “All in the Family” as the husband of Edith Bunker’s close friend, Louise Jefferson, but Hemsley finally appeared two years later – after serving out his “Purlie” theater contract.
‘Moved on up’
When George Jefferson turned his small Harlem dry-cleaning establishment into a successful chain, he moved from Queens to a luxury high-rise on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That provided the starting point for “The Jeffersons.”
“I loved the character because I knew people like that,” Hemsley said of George Jefferson in a 2003 interview for the Archive of American Television.
Years after the show ended, Hemsley frequently encountered fans who asked him to re-enact George’s famous strut from the show’s opening credits. Hemsley said the Philly Slop, a dance he learned as a boy in Philadelphia, inspired it. But he insisted that in most other ways he and his character were very different.
His television career spanned four decades, with guest appearances on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Family Matters.” He played Ernest Frye, a holier-than-thou church deacon and lawyer, in the sitcom “Amen,” which ran on NBC from 1986 to 1991. He also voiced a character on “Dinosaurs,” a puppet sitcom that aired on ABC from 1991 to 1994. From 1996 to 1997, he starred in the short-lived UPN series “Goode Behavior.”
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Hemsley’s best episodes from “The Jeffersons” will run on cable network TV Land Saturday, July 28, from noon to 4 p.m.
Elaine Woo and Valerie J. Nelson of the Los Angeles Times (MCT) contributed to this report.