TV star Sherman Hemsley died of natural causes on July 24 at the age of 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. It was a part that could have been clownish and exaggerated — the braying entrepreneur striving to, as the show’s theme song said, keep ”movin’ on up” — but Hemsley made George a vital, three-dimensional character, and an important advance in the depiction of black people on 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 he felt toward the world.
You can credit producer Norman Lear with helping to create the character, first on All in the Family and then on its spin-off The Jeffersons. (In a sense, Lear conceived of George Jefferson as the alt-Archie Bunker.) But it was clearly Hemsley’s performance that fueled its power. He had come up through the theater, in straight dramas as well as musicals (he initially came to George Jefferson fresh off a run in the raucous, Ossie Davis-inspired Broadway musical Purlie), and he brought a musicality to the way George moved on screen.
His erect posture conveyed George’s confidence; his perpetually affronted expression was a mask to shield him from injustices, correctly perceived or imagined; his harsh voice was the sound of a man who would not be denied his place in the world. To watch George Jefferson was to witness a man comfortable in his own skin — and that his 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. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sitcom character as militant, or as funny, since George.
The Jeffersons aired for a decade, from 1975 to 1985, 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 as a ”honky” when they’d offended or condescended to him — 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 on the sitcom Amen; he provided the voice for an imperious character on the puppet sitcom Dinosaurs. These were, in a sense, variations on George Jefferson, who will live and rant and remain lovable and admirable forever.