The character of George Jefferson debuted nearly four decades ago as a black bigot, a too-close-for-comfort counterpart to his white racist neighbor, Archie Bunker, on “All in the Family,” then the nation’s No. 1 show – in both ratings and controversy. But like Carroll O’Connor, who developed the close-minded Bunker into a multi-dimensional character capable of spurring complex reactions, Sherman Hemsley took George Jefferson far beyond a mere twist on a stereotype.
Hemsley, who died Tuesday at age 74, helped turn “The Jeffersons” into a cultural touchstone during perhaps television comedy’s most provocative era – and moved on up to secure a place in TV history.
George Jefferson was unlike any character seen on TV before – black or white. He was perennially prickly and defiant, short on stature, with a big mouth and even bigger ambitions.
In 1975, “The Jeffersons” became the second “All in the Family” spinoff (after “Maude”) and would go on to run more seasons than any show to come out of the formidable Norman Lear stable. The now-iconic opening sequence, with the rollicking theme song “Movin’ on Up,” set the tone: George and his wife Louise (aka Weezy) leaving the Bunkers’ modest Queens neighborhood, via a Checker cab, for a “deluxe apartment in the sky” on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Hemsley’s Jefferson proved a ball of energy, always seeming to be about to burst out of his swank pad and of his tailored suits – impeccably pressed, no doubt at the dry cleaning chain that catapulted him to the upper middle class. His fiery personality appeared stoked by hard-earned life lessons and frustrations with an unjust world, even if “The Jeffersons” fairly early on veered from the “All in the Family” formula of tackling social issues of the day head-on.
The George Jefferson character easily could have devolved into a cartoonish figure who spouted "honky" at every turn. Hemsley wisely imbued him with the humanity of an imperfect man who clearly loved his family – a hard-working striver whose pride and bluster couldn’t always mask his own insecurity about rising from humble roots.
But most of all, Sherman Hemsley knew how to make us laugh.
Strong writing fed Hemsley’s brilliant comic timing, as he memorably bickered with his housekeeper Florence (Marla Gibbs), and his son’s white father-in-law (Franklin Cover) and black mother-in-law (Roxie Rover). But his greatest verbal battles came with Weezy, portrayed by the great Isabel Sanford, who could match him quip for quip, displaying domestic comic chemistry comparable to Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows on “The Honeymooners.” Hemsley, a vibrant small-screen presence, also showed a talent for physical humor, particularly in sequences in which he would walk on the injured back of his affable British neighbor (Paul Benedict).
Hemsley went on to play Deacon Ernest Frye in “Amen” after CBS abruptly canceled "The Jeffersons" in 1985, and he turned up with Sanford in Old Navy commercials before her death in eight years ago. But Hemsley will be best remembered as the embodiment of George Jefferson, an outsized character, who, through sheer force of will, as the theme song tells us, finally got his piece of the pie.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.