Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Jeffersons's Sherman Hemsley dies aged 74 -

"He was a love of a guy" and "immensely talented," said Norman Lear, producer of The Jeffersons and All in the Family, after learning of his death.

"When the Jeffersons moved in next door to the Bunkers, I wanted to deliver the George Jefferson who could stand up to Archie Bunker," Lear recalled Tuesday.

"It took some weeks before I remembered having seen Sherman in 'Purlie' on Broadway."

Hemsley read for the part and "the minute he opened his mouth he was George Jefferson," Lear said. Hemsley was smaller than O'Connor's Archie but "he was every bit as strong as Archie," Lear said.

Sherman Alexander Hemsley, though, was far less feisty. The son of a printing press-working father and a factory-working mother, Hemsley served in the Air Force and worked for eight years as a clerk for the Postal Service.

Having studied acting as an adolescent at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began acting in New York workshops and theater companies, including the Negro Ensemble Company. For years, he kept his job at the post office while acting at night, before transitioning to acting full-time.

He made his Broadway debut in 1970's "Purlie," a musical adaptation of Ossie Davis' play Purlie Victorious. (Hemsley would later star in a 1981 made-for-TV version of Purlie, as well.) It was while touring the show that Hemsley was approached by producer Lear (Good Times, Sanford and Son) about playing a character on the show that would become All in the Family.

Hemsley joined the show in 1973, immediately catapulting himself from an obscure theater actor to a hit character on the enormously popular show. Two years later, The Jeffersons was spun off. Among the numerous All in the Family spin-offs (Maude, Archie Bunker's Place, 704 Hauser), The Jeffersons was the longest-running.

The character, the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning stores, was devised, Hemsley said, as "pompous and feisty."

"All of it was really hard for because - rude, I don't like to be that way," Hemsley said in a 2003 interview for the Archive of American Television. "But it was the character, I had to do it. I had to be true to the character. If I was to pull back something, then it just wouldn't work."

After The Jeffersons was abruptly cancelled, Hemsley starred in the comedy Amen as a fiery Philadelphia church deacon, Ernest Frye. The show latest five years, running 1986 to 1991.

Jackee Harry, a longtime friend who made appearances on the show, said she and Hemsley had planned to tour in the musical Ain't Misbehavin based on the music of jazzman Fats Waller. She said they had discussed it recently and that he seemed in good health and in good spirits.

"It's a sad, sad, sad day," she said from her home in Beverly Hills.

She recalled when the two of them were on a Manhattan sidewalk during the era of The Jeffersons, and passersby went wild.

"He got mauled and mugged," she laughed. "He said, 'What's all the screaming about?' He was so popular and he didn't even know it."

She described him as "a very private person unlike George Jefferson. But he was very kind and very sweet, and generous to a fault."

Hemsley frequently turned up as a guest on comedies like Family Matters, The Hughleys and even, in a voice role, Family Guy. He twice reprised George Jefferson, appearing as his famous character on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and, in 2011, on House of Payne.

Hemsley, whose films include 1979's Love at First Bite, 1987's Stewardess School and 1987's Ghost Fever, released an album, Ain't That a Kick in the Head, in 1989.

Source: agencies

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