Sherman Hemsley, who died on 24 July at the age of 74, was an actor who made the irascible, bigoted George Jefferson one of television's most memorable characters and a symbol for urban upward mobility. The Philadelphia-born Hemsley first played the blustering black Harlem businessman in All in the Family, the US version of Till Death Us Do Part, and then its spin-off The Jeffersons, which from 1975-85 was one of American TV's most successful comedies, particularly noteworthy with its mostly black cast.
With the gospel-style theme song of "Movin' On Up," the hit show depicted the wealthy former neighbours of Archie and Edith Bunker in Queens as they made their way on New York's Upper East Side. The Jeffersons (Isabel Sanford played his wife) often dealt with contemporary issues of racism, but more frequently revelled in the TV-comedy 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 black corollary to All In The Family's 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 – owner of a chain of dry-cleaning stores – who was as rich as he was crass.
Despite the character's many faults – money-driven, prejudiced, temperamental, a boor – Hemsley managed to make the character endearing as well, part of the reason the programme was so long-lasting. As with O'Connor's portrayal of Archie Bunker, deep down Hemsley's Jefferson loved his family and his friends (even the ones he relentlessly teased) and had a good heart. He was Emmy and Golden Globe nominated.
Born in 1938, Sherman Alexander Hemsley was the son of a printing press-working father and a factory-working mother, He served in the Air Force and worked for eight years as a clerk for the Postal Service. He twice reprised George Jefferson, in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and, in 2011, in House of Payne.