Sherman Hemsley, who played a racial bigot to hilarious effect on the hit ’70s show “All in the Family” and later on his own show “The Jeffersons,” marked a pivotal period in television history and became a cultural touchstone. He died today at 74.
Details surrounding his death are sketchy. He left no wife or children. His body was found by a nurse who could not rouse him. Police have attributed his death to natural causes, according to his agent, Todd Frank.
Helmsley was working on Broadway in the musical Purlie about living under the Jim Crow laws of the racially segregated south, when he got a call from Norman Lear. The television producer was interested in casting him in a show with Carroll O’Conner called “All in the Family.”
O’Conner played the now iconic Archie Bunker, an irascible blue-collar worker ingrained with racial prejudice, living in Queens, New York. Hemsley played his next-door neighbor, equally irascible and bigoted George Jefferson. The show was ground-breaking at a time when the nation was undergoing radical change.
It dealt with such issues as the Vietnam War, racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, miscarriage, abortion, cancer, impotence and menopause. As sensitive as some of the issues were, O’Connor, Hemsley and other cast members cut the tension with side-splitting comic relief.
In 1975, Hemsley won his own sit-com called “The Jeffersons,” focused on his move to the Upper East Side in New York’s Manhattan. The show continued to deal with such subjects as making it in America, racism, class distinctions and the meaning of success. His foil was his wife, Louis “Wheezy” Jefferson, played by Isabel Sanford.
His show was the first to feature an inter-racial couple in Tom and Helen Willis,, played by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker, and Hemsley was nominated for an Emmy in 1984.
CBS abruptly canceled the show in 1985 after 11 seasons. (Hemsley said he read about it in the paper.) By then, however, he was forever typecast as George Jefferson. He jumped to NBC the next year to play Ernest Frye, an unscrupulous church deacon in the sit-com “Amen.” It ran for five seasons.
Hemsley often reprised his Jeffersons character for special appearances and in guest spots like the Will Smith sit-com “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Sanford would often join him.
Hemsley was born and raised in South Philadelphia and dropped out of school to join the Air Force. He later took a job at the U.S. Post Office and worked as an actor at night. He was also a solid singer, recording the 1989 single “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.” He released an R&B album, Dance, in 1992.
He passed away at his El Paso, Texas, home, gossip site TMZ reported.