EL PASO, Texas (AP) _ The Philadelphia-born Sherman Hemsley, who police said recently died at his home in El Paso, Texas, at age 74, first played George Jefferson on the CBS show ”All in the Family” before he was spun off onto ”The Jeffersons.” The sitcom ran for 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985.
With the gospel-style theme song of ”Movin’ On Up,” the hit show depicted the wealthy former neighbors of Archie and Edith Bunker in Queens as they made their way on New York’s Upper East Side. Hemsley and the Jeffersons (Isabel Sanford played his wife) often dealt with contemporary issues of racism, but more frequently reveled in the sitcom archetype of a short-tempered, opinionated patriarch trying, often unsuccessfully, to control his family.
Hemsley’s feisty, diminutive father with an exaggerated strut was a kind of black corollary to Archie Bunker _ a stubborn, high-strung man who had a deep dislike for whites (his favorite word for them was honkies). Yet unlike the blue-collar Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, he was a successful businessman whose was as rich as he was crass. His wife, Weezie, was often his foil _ yet provided plenty of zingers as well.
Hemsley joined the show in 1973, immediately catapulting himself from an obscure theater actor to a hit character on the enormously popular show. Two years later, ”The Jeffersons” was spun off. Among the numerous ”All in the Family” spin-offs (”Maude,” ”Archie Bunker’s Place, ”704 Hauser”), ”The Jeffersons” ran the longest.
The character, the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning stores, was devised, Hemsley said, as ”pompous and feisty.”
Hemsley, whose films include 1979′s ”Love at First Bite,” 1987′s ”Stewardess School” and 1987′s ”Ghost Fever,” released an album, ”Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” in 1989.
In an interview with the Gloucester County Times in 2011, Hemsley said his show business career actually began in childhood.
”Making people laugh was automatic,” he said. ”I was in a play in elementary school and had to jump up and run away. I was nervous and tripped and fell down and everyone laughed. Their laughter made me relax, so I pretended it was part of the show.”
”I always told my mother I wanted a job where I could have a lot of fun and have a lot of time off,” Hemsley added. ”She asked me where I was going to find that, and I said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s out there.”’