By Dwight Hobbes
Sherman Hemsley held delighted television viewers in complete hysterics as George Jefferson (All in the Family, The Jeffersons), the feisty little Bantam rooster of a man who was tight with a buck and hard on White folk.
Hemsley passed away July 24 of natural causes. Beyond his most noted work as George Jefferson, he logged an impressive career in theater. After studying with famed director Lloyd Richards at the legendary Negro Ensemble Company, he debuted on Broadway as Gitlow in Purlie, the musical adaptation of Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious.
As a member of Vinnette Carroll’s Urban Arts Company he appeared in But Never Jam Today, The Lottery, Old Judge Mose is Dead, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, Step Lively Boys, Croesus, and The Witch. He also performed in Carroll’s historic musical Sorry, I Can’t Cope for the American Conservatory Theater.
In later years, he starred with the original cast in a short-lived Broadway adaptation of The Jeffersons.
Between film and television, the stage veteran enjoyed a highly successful career after All in the Family and The Jeffersons. As unscrupulous church deacon Ernest Frye on Amen, he recreated the George Jefferson persona and was integral in the show being a hit for five seasons. When Amen left the air, he supplied the voice for the overbearing Bradley P. Richfield on Jim Henson’s live-action puppet series Dinosaurs, which ran for four seasons.
After that Hemsley went into semi-retirement, intermittently showing back up on such programs as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Wayans Brothers, Family Guy, The Hughleys, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper and Sister, Sister in a catalog totaling some 60 guest appearances. He continued working off and on until 2011, when he guested on Clunkers and his last appearance on Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.
It is little known that Hemsley dallied with a music career. In 1989, having previously been a jazz keyboardist, he released a single entitled “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.” This was followed in 1992 by Dance, an album of rhythm and blues. In 1999, Hemsley collaborated with Jon Anderson, vocalist for the popular British rock band Yes, on an album Festival of Dreams, which was not released.
Sherman Alexander Hemsley never married and had no children. He died at his home in El Paso, Texas at age 74.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.