Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Remembering Sherman Hemsley February 1, 1938 - July 24, 2012

The character of George Jefferson was the African American version to Archie Bunker.  Both characters were television bigots.  George Jefferson was played by Sherman Hemsley on the popular CBS television sitcom "The Jeffersons" that ran from 1975-85.

Sherman Hemsley was born and raised in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by his mother who worked  in a lamp factory.  He eventually met his father at the age of 14.  He dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Air Force where he served his country for four years.  Following his military service, Hemsley went back to Philadelphia to take a job with the U.S. Post Office during the day and took his shot at acting during the night.  He began his amateur acting career by playing the character Gitlow in the 1970's Broadway play "Purlie"

Hemsley eventually left Philadelphia to pursue his career in New York City to study at the Negro Ensemble Company.  He played roles in numerous plays during that time and displayed his singing voice.  It was during his performance in "Purlie" that Norman Lear called him in 1971 to play the role of George Jefferson in his new sitcom, "All in the Family"  Hemsley and Isabel Sanford  were given supporting roles.  Soon the spin-off to All in the Family was born.  The Jeffersons proved to be one of Lear's most successful shows that ran for eleven seasons.

When "The Jeffersons" concluded, Hemsley joined the cast of NBC's "Amen" in 1986 where he played the role of "Deacon Ernest Frye" that would run for five seasons until 1991.  He was a voice actor in the puppet series "Dinosaurs" having played Bradley Richfield.

Hemsley concluded his acting career but appeared with Isabel Sanford on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and played in commercials for "The Gap" "Old Navy" and "Denny's"  He and Sanford also made a cameo appearance in "Sprung" He was inducted into the Television Academy hall of Fame in 2012.

As I mentioned earlier, Hemsley was also an accomplished musician having been a jazz keyboardist.  He released a single titled "Ain't That A Kick in the Head" followed by an album called "Dance"

Although his roles showed him as a loud boisterous man, in private, Hemsley was very shy and many would call him a recluse.  He was never married and had no children.  He often spoke of how difficult it was to play the role of George Jefferson.

In his later years, Hemsley suffered from lung cancer that would eventually end his life on July 24, 2012.  His death ended in controversy.  His burial was delayed for nearly four months waiting for the courts to allow him to be laid to rest.  A Philadelphia man claimed to be Hemsley's brother and forced the delay of his funeral arrangements at the San Jose Funeral Home. Following the legal battle, Hemsley's body was released to his business partner, Flora Enchinton.

On November 21, 2012, Sherman Hemsley's Home Going Service  (pictured) was held in the Cielo Vista Church in El Paso, Texas.  The nearly 150 people in attendance enjoyed watching some of Hemsley's humorous clips from his successful career.  El Paso Police Department Chaplain said of Hemsley "He helped us to laugh, gave us an opportunity to forget the troubles, the stresses of life."

In honor of his service to his country, Sherman Hemsley was laid to rest with military honors in the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, Texas.

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