Sherman Hemsley, the man who brought George Jefferson to vivid life, has died at age 74. The accomplished stage actor achieved his widest fame in a role he raised to comic greatness: George Jefferson, the egotistical, strutting centerpiece of The Jeffersons.
Hemsley took a part that could have been clownish and exaggerated — George Jefferson, the braying entrepeneur striving to, as the show’s theme song said, “move on up” — and made George a vital, three-dimensional character, and an important advance in the depiction of black characters in sitcoms. George’s ego and selfishness were often brought into line by his wife, Isabel Sanford’s Louise Jefferson (George’s beloved “Weezy”), but the force of the character derived from the tremendous ambition, frustration, and anger George felt toward the world.
You can credit producer Norman Lear for helping to conceive the character, first in All in the Family and then as a spin-off in The Jeffersons, but it was clearly Hemsley’s performance that fueled its power. Hemsley had come up through the theater, in straight dramas as well as musicals (he came to George Jefferson initially fresh from a run in the raucous, Ossie Davis-derived Broadway musical Purlie), and Jefferson brought a rhythmic musicality in the way George moved onscreen. His erect posture conveyed George’s pride, his perpetually affronted expression was a mask against the injustices, correctly perceived or imagined, by George; his harsh voice was the sound of a man who would not be denied his place in the world. Watching George Jefferson was to witness a man comfortable in his own skin — and that that skin was black was significant. From Hemsley’s performance, you could build an entire philosophy of the man he played. As a black man of his generation, George was as likely to have taken his civil rights cues from Malcolm X as from Martin Luther King, Jr. And while his business acumen placed him squarely in the capitalist tradition, George was a Black Panther-inspired figure of action, emboldened to make his opinions heard, his actions felt in the world around him.
The Jeffersons aired for a decade, 1975-85, and Hemsley’s performance embodied George’s move from the working-class to the middle-class as the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning businesses. George’s pride, his radar for any trace of racial exploitation, his ease at dismissing someone who’d offended or condescended to him as “honky” — these were all elements that could easily have put off mass America. Instead, because of Hemsley’s skill, charm, and energy, they became the elements that endeared the character to the country.
Hemsley went on to other roles. He was a rascal church deacon in the sitcom Amen; he provided the voice for an imperious character in the puppet sitcom Dinosaurs. These were, in a sense, variations on George Jefferson, who will live and rant and remain lovable and admirable forever.