Sherman Hemsley, the onetime stage actor who became a pop-culture fixture as dry-cleaning entrepreneur George Jefferson on All in the Family and The Jeffersons, has died at age 74.
As Norman Lear created him and Hemsley brought him to life, George was an example of how the same things that make sitcom characters outsized and hilarious can make them believable and real. Arguably, when George first appeared on All in the Family, he was a kind of Black Archie, his stubbornness and prejudices mirroring Archie Bunker’s. But over time, especially as George and Weezy moved on up to the East Side in The Jeffersons, he became his own kind of character, with his own motivations, personality and peculiarities.
The Jeffersons was a wacky show, a show about family, a zinger-jokes show, a show about race. But it was also a show about ambition—”Movin’ on up,” as the show’s theme song said. And Hemsley played George in a way that he wasn’t just funny—you could also see that he had to work and push himself to get where he is. His strutting, his braying, his boasting set up a lot of sitcom situations, but they also said something about his character: George is a guy who has gotten where he has by making himself seem bigger, louder, puffing up his feathers.
Hemsley’s George was bold, brash and dynamic, and Hemsley played him with visible relish. He became his own kind of lovable loudmouth: bickering with Florence, ranting about “honkies,” needling his mixed-race-couple neighbors and getting set straight by Weezy and Lionel. He was pushy and easily affronted, but in a way that made sense: it wasn’t easy for a black man to build a chain of dry cleaners in a world of Archie Bunkers.
Not unlike the way Carroll O’Connor found the core that made Archie a person and not just a social statement, Hemsley made us laugh with George’s outbursts while also suggesting that he couldn’t be who he was without them. That’s the difference between playing a sitcom jerk and playing a sitcom jerk whom we come to love, and, eventually, mourn. RIP.