A postal worker by day, Sherman Hemsley studied acting at night until eventually landing the chance to show off his talents on the Broadway stage. Producer Norman Lear caught one of his performances and immediately tapped him to play the irascible George Jefferson on "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79) and "The Jeffersons" (CBS, 1975-1985). Hemsley's high-voltage, sometimes controversial performance, which earned him several award nominations, was popular with television audiences, but it also left him irrevocably typecast; he essentially played close variations on the grouchy, racist Jefferson in his subsequent series, "Amen" (NBC, 1986-1991) and "Goode Behavior" (UPN, 1996-97), as well as countless TV guest spots. By the late-1990s, he was making regular appearances in commercials and promotions with his former "Jeffersons" TV wife Isabel Sanford, as well as in a play based on the series. But despite never veering too far from the irascible George Jefferson persona, there was no denying his impact as a man who broke boundaries as an African-American character who was "movin' on up" in a white man's world, as well as an off-screen African-American actor who conquered the white man's medium of 1970s sitcoms like no other.
Born Feb. 1, 1938 in Philadelphia, PA, Hemsley was raised by his mother and dropped out of school to join the Air Force, where he served for four years. He later took a job with the United States Post Office while studying acting at night. Hemsley eventually became a member of the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company, continuing his studies at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts. He remained with the Post Office even after a move to New York, and finally earned his big break on Broadway with a supporting role as Gitlow in the 1970 Tony-winning musical "Purlie." Hemsley would reprise the role for a 1981 version that aired on Showtime. More stage work followed, including the 1973 play "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope." Producer Norman Lear happened to catch Hemsley's performance in the play and cast him as George Jefferson, neighbor to Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) on 15 episodes of "All in the Family." A successful businessman who was also bigoted, loud-mouthed, and unafraid to bully anyone who did not agree with him, Jefferson was designed to present a black character that was as offensive as Archie, and the verbal fireworks that incurred whenever the two characters met were among the funniest and most charged episodes in the series. Initially, Jefferson was discussed but not seen on "All in the Family," and Archie's arguments were usually conducted with his brother, Henry (Mel Stuart). This was due to the fact that Hemsley was committed to a stage play and could not sign on with the series until it ran its course. Once the show ended in 1973, George took over as Archie's chief antagonist, and continued to make appearances on the show until 1975.
Lear saw that an "All in the Family" style show built around the Jeffersons might achieve the same degree of success, and so he pulled Hemsley, Isabel Sanford (as his wife Louise "Weezie" Jefferson), and Mike Evans (as their son Lionel) from the Bunker series and cast them in "The Jeffersons." The series saw George and family trade their home in Queens for a penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan thanks to his successful dry cleaning business. However, the move did little to decrease George's temper; if anything, he found himself surrounded on all sides from Louise, smart-mouthed maid Florence (Marla Gibbs), and their neighbors, Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker), the first interracial couple on network television. Much of the show's humor centered on Hemsley's explosive reactions - including liberal uses of the word "honkey" - to the other characters, though like Archie Bunker, he could be counted on to hatch some hair-brained schemes and bluster his way out of them when they failed. Occasionally, he even found time to get along with his wife and neighbors, though George and Florence could never see eye to eye.
The series debuted to modest ratings in 1975 but grew in popularity over the next few seasons, eventually breaking the Top 30 in its second and third seasons. Hemsley himself shared much of the critical praise for the show with Sanford, and earned a 1982 Image Award for his performance, as well as a 1984 Emmy nomination and a 1985 Golden Globe nod. The show took up much of his time, and he remained largely inactive outside of it, save for a supporting role as a preacher in the horror-comedy "Love at First Bite" (1979) and several appearances on variety shows of the day, including a hosting stint on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) in 1976. As with Archie Bunker, much of the fire in George Jefferson was tempered in later seasons, which eventually declined in popularity. The show was unceremoniously canceled by CBS in 1985 without even airing a final episode; reportedly, Hemsley found out about the show's demise by reading the daily trades.
Hemsley's popularity as George Jefferson made him an attractive prospect for networks seeking a top-rated star for their new series, so in 1986, NBC hired him as the star of "Amen," a sitcom set at an African-American church in Philadelphia, PA. As the Reverend Ernest Frye, Hemsley was less prone to make incendiary statements, but the character's capacity for butting heads with others - in this case, Clifton Davis as the handsome new pastor with an eye for Frye's daughter (Anna Maria Horsford) - and for cooking up outrageous schemes. Though nowhere near as groundbreaking or outrageous as "The Jeffersons" in its heyday, "Amen" was a popular comedy with viewers and one of several successful African-American comedies on NBC's docket during the late-1980s. Having experienced lightning striking twice in his career, Hemsley attempted to branch out and see if his popularity would carry him over to films. However, the results were spectacularly awful; "Stewardess School" (1986) and "Camp Fed" (1990) were limp, humorless affairs, and "Ghost Fever" (1987) was such a stunning embarrassment that the director (Lee Madden) took his name off the project. Hemsley later kept his extracurricular projects to a minimum until "Amen" ran its course in 1991.
Hemsley worked steadily through the 1990s in a variety of television projects. Reruns of "The Jeffersons" served as a reminder of his comic potential, but also assured that he would rarely play characters with temperaments beyond that of George or Ernest Frye. He voiced a triceratops that made life miserable for the hero of Jim Henson's puppet show-comedy "Dinosaurs" (ABC, 1991-94), and made semi-regular appearances on "Family Matters" (CBS, 1989-1998) as police officer Carl Winslow's (Reginald Veljohnson) superior officer. The fledgling network UPN tapped Hemsley to play a con artist who must live under house arrest with his son in "Goode Behavior." However, the program, which was one of the last to be produced by the legendary MTM Enterprises, did not catch on with audiences and was brought to a close after only a season.
By the mid- to late-1990s, Hemsley was still landing regular work on television, including recurring roles on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1990-96) and "Sister, Sister" (ABC/The WB, 1994-99). His "Jeffersons" past, however, was never far behind, and he began appearing with Sanford in a series of amusing ads for Denny's restaurants and the Old Navy clothing line which attempted to generate the same sassy sparks they produced as a married couple on the series. Both actors also reunited with many of their "Jeffersons" co-stars for a theatrical version of the show, which toured extensively and even reached Broadway for a brief period of time. Sanford passed away in 2004, which brought an end to their lucrative collaborations.
Hemsley's output appeared to slow down after the new millennium; there were recurring appearances on "The Hughleys" (ABC/UPN, 1998-2002) and a failed pilot which attempted to revive "Mr. Ed" (CBS, 1961-66) with Hemsley as the voice of the famous talking horse. But for the most part, he appeared satisfied with resting on the laurels of his well-loved acting legacy as he reached his seventh decade. He did continue to work, however, voicing himself in an episode of "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999- ) while appearing on the last season of the reality series "The Surreal Life" (VH1, 2003-06). Following a role as a pastor in the direct-to-DVD release "American Pie: The Book of Love" (2009), Hemsley reprised George Jefferson with a guest appearance on "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" (TBS, 2007- ). That episode proved to be his final screen role, as Hemsley died on July 24, 2012 in his El Paso, TX home reportedly of natural causes. He was 74 years old, and left behind no wife or children.