Sherman Hemsley, best known for playing the outspoken George Jefferson on the classic Norman Lear sit-com “The Jeffersons,” died this week at 74. It was a challenge to play the role of George Jefferson, who was often referred to but never seen for many episodes of one of the most popular and influential television shows of all time, “All in the Family.” Creator Norman Lear wanted to come up with a worthy foil the his conservative and bigoted Archie Bunker played by Carroll O’Connor. The idea of a black man who was as prejudiced against white people as Bunker was against non-whites was surprising and provocative. At first, viewers only heard about George from his wife, played by Isabel Sanford. But when Hemsley stepped into the role he made the peppery and sometimes arrogant character who moved like a bantam rooster so appealing soon he and Sanford were starring in the spin-off, with its unforgettable theme song. It ran for 11 years. Hemsley later starred in “Amen” as a church deacon and as George Jefferson again in “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
High-strung and irrepressible, George Jefferson quickly became one of America’s most popular television characters, a high-energy, combative black man who backed down to no one — something that had rarely been seen on television. At the same time, however, he was vain, snobbish and bigoted (“honky” was one of his favorite epithets directed at whites), and flaunted his self-regard like a badge. Each week, his wife or their irreverent maid, Florence (played by Marla Gibbs), would step up to scuttle his wrongheaded schemes or deflate his delusions of grandeur.
Hemsley’s great gift was to make us understand that beneath his bluster, George Jefferson loved his family and worked hard for his success. He surrounded himself with people who were not above putting him down and at some level he enjoyed it. May his memory be a blessing.