Hemsley, Sherman 1938–
Sherman Hemsley 1938–
Comedic actor Sherman Hemsley so embodied his role on television’s long-running series The Jeffersons that many fans still think of him only as George Jefferson. Donald Bogle described Hemsley in Blacks in American Films and Television as “one of America’s best-known [by character, not name] but least publicized performers.” Hemsley was a stage actor at the beginning of his career. He broke into television in 1973 when producer Norman Lear cast him as George Jefferson, Archie Bunker’s neighbor in the popular series All in the Family. His character proved so strong that Hemsley was cast in a starring role with Isabel Sanford in the spinoff series, The Jeffersons. The Jeffersons became wildly popular in its own right with audiences both black and white, and enjoyed a ten-year run on CBS, from 1975 to 1985. In the years that followed, Hemsley’s career has continued to thrive. He has had several film roles and has made numerous guest appearances on television shows including Family Matters, Me and the Boys, and Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Although a popular and very successful actor who has worked steadily since he began in New York theatre in the sixties, Hemsley has managed to keep the spotlight of publicity focused on his professional career only. As a result, most of the details of his personal life have remained private.
Sherman Hemsley was born February 1, 1938 in Philadelphia. He attended school there through the tenth grade. He served in the U.S. Air Force sometime after the Korean War, stationed in both Japan and Korea. In the mid-fifties Hemsley enrolled in the Bok Vocational-Technical School in South Philadelphia to learn tailoring. As the Philadelphia Daily News noted in 1996, “If Sherman Hemsley had been able to sew a fine seam, TV might never have been the same.” Luckily for George Jefferson fans, tailoring proved intimidating for Hemsley, who told the paper he opted out when he saw “how hard it was to do those little stitches.” He traded vocational school for a retail sales position. This he did not care for either, and moved on to restaurant training, lured by the prospect of being able to eat what he cooked. “But,” Hemsley told the Daily News, “I always knew I wanted to be an actor.” He finally landed a position with the U.S. Postal Service, where he would work for eight years. During those early years Hemsley also attended Philadelphia’s Academy of Dramatic Arts
Born February 1, 1938, in Philadelphia, PA. Educa tion: Attended Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts, also studied with Lloyd Richards in New York; served in U.S. Air Force in Japan and Korea.
Career: Worked for U.S. Postal Service for eight years; performed with Negro Ensemble Company, New York City. Television: Black Book (Philadelphia local series); George Jefferson, All in the Family, 1973-75; George Jefferson, The jeffersons, 1975-85; Deacon Frye, Amen, 1986-91; voice, B.P. Richfield, The Dinosaurs, 1991-94; Willie Goode, Goode Behavior, 1996-97; numerous guest appearances on series and specials. Made-for-television movies: Purlie, 1981; Alice in Wonderland, 1985. Films: Love at First Bite, 1979; Stewardess School, 1986; Ghost Fever, 1987; Club Fed, 1991; Home of Angels, 1993; Mr. Nanny, 1993; Sprung, 1997. Theatre: debuted with Negro Ensemble Company, New York City; appeared in The People vs. Ranchman, 1968; But Never Jam Today, 1969; Old judge Mose is Dead, 1969; Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, 1969; Purlie, 1970; Purlie Victorious and others with the Theatre XIV Company; The Blacks; The Odd Couple; Norman, is That You? 1986; Under the Yum-Yum Tree; Death of a Salesman; Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, 1973; I’m Not Rappaport, 1987. Owner, Love Is, Inc., a production company.
Memberships and awards: Member, AFTRA, Vinette Carroll’s Urban Arts Corps, Actors’ Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; recipient, NAACP Image Award, 1976, 1987, Hollywood Foreign Press Association Award, Golden Globe Award.
Addresses: c/o Kenny Johnston, 6290 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 403, Los Angeles, CA 90028.
and pursued roles in small theaters. Notably, he starred in a local Philadelphia TV comedy series called Black Book. Although he has admitted he sometimes had his doubts about whether he would make it as an actor, he explained the dream to Parade’s James Brady in 1996: “You have this burning desire. You’re sure this is the path to take. Yeah, I had doubts. But a buddy at the post office said, ‘Hey, you’re the only one of us who’s going to get out of here.’”
Hemsley obtained a transfer to New York City in the late sixties. Once there, he joined the Negro Ensemble Company. He also studied acting with Lloyd Richards and performed with Vinette Carroll’s Urban Arts Corps. 1968 found him cast in the off-Broadway production The People vs. Ranchman as the assistant executioner. In 1969 he appeared with the Urban Arts Corps on a double bill combining the one-act Old Judge Mose is Dead and the three-act tragicomedy Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. New York Times reviewer McCandlish Phillips singled out Hemsley’s performances for praise, noting, “In both ends of the evening, Sherman Hemsley shows himself to be an actor whose instinct for the comic line and the comic gesture … is wholly natural and just about perfect.” Phillips credited Hemsley with “sustain[ing] … the one-act comedy throughout.” He also observed that as Charlie Adams in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, “he stirs laughter at every turn until, in a moment of overwhelming grief, he weeps.”
In 1970 Hemsley was cast as Gitlow in the Broadway musical Purlie. Although New York Times theatre reviewer Clive Barnes noted that “Novella Nelson and Sherman Hemsley were smooth as silk as Purlie’s family,” he also suggested that the play would make stars of performers Cleavon Little and Melba Moore. As it turned out, Purlie was instrumental in making a star of Sherman Hemsley as well. Producer Norman Lear saw Hemsley’s performance in that production and was impressed. Three years later, Lear was trying unsuccessfully to cast the role of Archie Bunker’s neighbor in the CBS series All in the Family. Remembering Hemsley’s performance in Purlie, Lear tracked him to San Francisco, where he was performing in Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.
Hemsley was perfect as George Jefferson. Pamala S. Deane described the part in the Encyclopedia of Television. “The George Jefferson character was conceptualized as a black equivalent of Archie Bunker. George was intolerant, rude, and stubborn,” she wrote. In two years’ time George was so well-liked by audiences it was decided The Jeffersons would become a spinoff series.
Premiering January 17, 1975, the show became, after a somewhat rocky start, an enduring success. In this series, the Jeffersons’ dry cleaning business has expanded to seven stores and has made them very wealthy. They have moved from Queens to a luxury high-rise apartment on Manhattan’s East Side. Focusing on their lives, the series co-starred Isabel Sanford as Louise Jefferson—or “Weezy,” as George called her. It was the first television show since Amos ‘n Andy to feature blacks in starring roles with a mostly black cast, noted the Encyclopedia of Television. Featuring Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover, the show also broke ground as the first to portray an interracial married couple. Roker and Cover, played the Willises, the Jeffersons’ neighbors. Jet noted in 1983 that despite strong initial ratings, the show suffered through some poor time slots and several times faced the specter of cancellation. Ratings stabilized when the show was moved to Sunday nights in a plum lineup led by the venerable 60 Minutes. Although an excellent writing team and inimitable cast chemistry are also credited for the series’ success, Jet concluded that “for a generation that has grown up with George and Weezy, the most attractive aspect of the show is the relationship between these two. Their ups and downs, likes and dislikes transcend race and have universal appeal.”
The Jeffersons ended its ten-year run in 1985. Hemsley was soon cast in another series, this time opposite actor-turned-real-life-minister Clifton Davis in the CBS church board hit, Amen. Board member Deacon Frye, Hemsley’s new character, bore some similarities to George Jefferson. Frye was also feisty, overbearing, witty, and sometimes unscrupulous. Hemsley pointed out to Jet in 1986 that although “this character has the same energy level as George … they are basically different people.” Again, good cast chemistry and writing helped sustain the show beyond the excellent acting of its principals, and the series ran for a respectable five years, ending in 1991.
Hemsley was the voice of B.P. Richfield on the series The Dinosaurs from 1991 to 1994, and was cast in 1996 as ex-con Willie Goode in the short-lived UPN series Goode Behavior. Hemsley has made numerous guest appearances on various television series and specials from 1975 to the present. He has had film roles in Love at First Bite (1979), Stewardess School (1987), and Ghost Fever (1987). In 1996 he won a $2.8 million lawsuit against Wolf Schmidt, a film distributor who, according to Jet, “denied him his share of profits from the 1987 movie Ghost Fever.” Hemsley also appeared in the made-for-TV movies Purlie in 1981 and Alice in Wonderland in 1985.
Deane noted in the Encyclopedia of Television that “Hemsley as a person is quite unlike the high-strung character he has popularized on television.” Rumors that Hemsley is difficult to work with were settled by Clifton Davis. “I’m here to tell you that’s a lie,” he told Jet in 1986. “He’s very shy. He’s giving, and is not on an ego trip. He’s terrific.” Other Amen cast members had similar praise for Hemsley. Jet reported in 1987 that “Roz Ryan, who plays Amelia Heterbrink, gives Hemsley much of the credit for keeping the show laid back.” “He’s a peach,” Ryan told Jet, and added, “Sherman is like a Black Charlie Chaplin. He’s wonderful.”
Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Vol. 3. Edited by Monica M. O’Donnell. Detroit: Gale, 1986.
Encyclopedia of Television, Vol. 2. Edited by Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.
Terrace, Vincent. Encyclopedia of Television Series, Pilots and Specials, 1974-1984. New York: Zoetrope, 1985.
McNeil, Alex. Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present, 4th Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Facts on File, 1992.
Jet, October 3, 1983, October 27, 1986, November 23, 1987, March 25, 1996, April 7, 1997.
New York Times Theatre Reviews, Vol. 8.
Philadelphia Daily News, August 22, 1996.
—Ellen Dennis French
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