Acting in his hometown, Hemsley, who studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts, attracted attention in Jean Genet’s legendary drama The Blacks. While pursuing his dream of acting in New York, Hemsley held on to the security of working for the post office. As a member of the famed Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), Hemsley, who also studied with NEC alum Lloyd Richards, who later become the dean of the Yale School of Drama, a training ground for Angela Bassett and Charles Dutton, was well on his way.
In fact, his comedic timing and talent were noted by a reviewer for the New York Times when he appeared in the off-Broadway double bill of Old Judge Mose Is Dead and Moon on a Rainbow Shawl in 1969. “An actor whose instinct for the comic line and the comic gesture, even the comic lift of an eyelash, is wholly natural and just about perfect,” noted the reviewer.
Norman Lear, the man behind All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons, noticed Hemsley in the Broadway musical Purlie, based on Ossie Davis’s 1961 play Purlie Victorious, which earned Melba Moore a Tony Award and placed Hemsley on the 1970 broadcast performing with the cast. Lear was convinced that Hemsley was the man to serve as the husband to Isabel Sanford’s Louise Jefferson and her son Lionel (Mike Evans) who appeared on All in the Family two years before Hemsley showed up in 1973.
Hemsley’s George Jefferson proved so popular that it led to the spin-off The Jeffersons, which premiered on CBS on January 17, 1975, running until June 25, 1985. But the critics didn’t necessarily love George Jefferson. Joel Dreyfuss, writing for the Washington Post in 1975, totally missed Hemsley’s charm as George Jefferson. “The problem here is that unlike Bunker, we find little about George that we can like,” he wrote. “Bunker, under all the bigotry and irrational fears, displayed some warmth and human understanding. In this case we are left with George Jefferson as simply irrational and unlikable.”
Black viewers absolutely loved George Jefferson for telling white people off every week as well as for becoming rich on his own terms. Like Archie Bunker, George loved his wife and his son, plus he was a loyal friend and able to give people a fair shake. He may not have approved of Tom and Helen’s (Lenny Kravitz’s real life mother, Roxie Roker) interracial marriage but, once he got to know them, thanks to his wife Louise’s ability to accept everyone, he became a great friend.
Hemsley went on to play Deacon Frye in “Amen,” arguably television’s first church-based black sitcom, but nothing he did, even his forays into a recording career, outshined his turn as George Jefferson. “A man’s got to leave his mark,” he said in the 1977 episode of The Jeffersons, when he commissions a sculptor to create a bust of him. “Something to prove that he’s been here,” he continues. “Otherwise, there ain’t no sense in showing up at all.”
As George Jefferson, Sherman Hemsley “showed up” and “showed out” to the delight of many, creating an iconic character in television history whose legacy forever lives on. When it comes to the category of “self-assured black man making it happen,” George Jefferson continues to be the prototype.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha