"...once you find the rhythm of the character, for me anyway...the words just fall right into place."
About This Interview
In his one-hour Archive interview, Sherman Hemsley (1938-2012) speaks of his early career as a stage actor (while continuing to work a day-job at the post office) and his rise to fame as "George Jefferson" on All in the Family. He speaks of his being cast for the role and the subsequent spin-off, The Jeffersons. After the show went off the air, Mr. Hemsely continued performing in another sitcom, Amen. Karen Herman conducted the interview in Burbank, CA on August 17, 2003.
African-American actor Sherman Hemsley is recognized mainly for his portrayal of the feisty George Jefferson character in the hit television show The Jeffersons, a program he starred in for ten years. Earlier in his life he aspired to be an actor, but was too level-headed to quit his job as a postal worker pursue his craft exclusively. Holding onto his job, he managed to maintain affiliations with local dramatic organizations, appearing in various children's theatre productions. Eventually, Hemsley obtained a transfer to a position with the post office in New York. Here, he became a member of the famed Negro Ensemble Company. He began taking acting lessons, but was becoming discouraged at his lack of progress. In 1969, however, he earned the plum role of "Gitlow" in the highly successful, musical version of Purlie Victorious.
In 1973 Hemsley was "Cat" in the successful stage play Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope. It was during the run of this show that he was "discovered" by independent producer Norman Lear. Lear, along with his collaborator Bud Yorkin produced a string of hit television shows during the 1970s, including Maude, Good Times and 1970s television's most notable sitcom, All in the Family.
In 1973, Lear cast Hemsley to play the part of Archie Bunker's upwardly mobile, and militantly black neighbor, George Jefferson. The response to this character was so favorable that two years later, Hemsley was cast in the spin-off series The Jeffersons. The Jeffersons became a top-rated television program which aired on prime-time television for ten years. The program focused on the lives of a successful African-American couple, George and Louise Jefferson. George Jefferson was a thriving businessman, a millionaire and owner of seven dry cleaning stores. He lived with his wife in a ritzy penthouse apartment on Manhattan's fashionable and moneyed East Side.
The "George Jefferson," character was conceptualized as a black equivalent of Archie Bunker. George was intolerant, rude, and stubborn; he referred to White people as "honkies." He was a short, mean, bigoted, popinjay who balked at manners. Louise, his long-suffering wife, spent most of her time apologizing for her husband's behavior. Florence, the housekeeper/maid, contributed a great deal of comic relief with her continuous put-downs of George. She was not afraid of his of angry outbursts; in fact she had little regard for him or his tirades. She referred to him as "Shorty", and never missed a chance to put George in his place.
The Jeffersons was one of three highly successful television sitcoms featuring African-Americans in starring roles, in a mostly-black cast program--the first since Amos 'n Andy; it was the first television program to feature an interracial married couple; it offered an uncommon albeit comic portrayal of a successful African American family.
Hemsley as a person is quite unlike the high-strung character he has popularized on television. He is a private individual who has managed, even with success to keep his affairs away from the glare of public scrutiny. During the height of The Jeffersons popularity, he spoke of his sudden fame, simply stating that he was, "just getting paid for what I did for free in Philadelphia."
When The Jeffersons was canceled in 1985, Hemsley went on to star in the 1986 sitcom Amen. In typical Hemsley style he portrayed a feisty Philadelphia church deacon, Ernest Frye. Like George Jefferson, the Frye character was loud, brash and conceited. Though Amen lasted only five years on prime-time television, Hemsley's career continues to flourish. He has appeared as an occasional character or guest in several television programs, including the long-running Family Matters.
Although known mostly for his television work, Hemsley acting credits include the motion picture, Love at First Bite (1979) and the made-for-TV version of Purlie (1981). Years after its cancellation The Jeffersons still enjoys success in syndication.
-Pamela S. Deane
SHERMAN HEMSLEY. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 1 February 1938. Educated at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts; studied with Lloyd Richards in New York. Served in the U.S. Air Force. Worked eight years for the U.S. Postal Service; active in the advanced workshop of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City; appeared in various stage productions; starred in local television comedy series Black Book in Philadelphia, Broadway debut in Purlie, 1970; star, several television series since 1979; owner of Love Is, Inc. production company. Member: Screen Actors Guild; Actors' Equity Association; American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; Vinette Carrol's Urban Arts Corps. Recipient: NAACP Image Award, 1976, 1987; Golden Globe Award; Hollywood Foreign Press Association Award. Address: c/o Kenny Johnston, 6290 Sunset Blvd., Suite 403, Hollywood, California 90028, U.S.A.
1973-75 All in the Family 1975-85 The Jeffersons 1986-91 Amen 1991-94 Dinosaurs (voice) 1996- Goode Behavior
1981 Purlie 1985 Alice in Wonderland
Love at First Bite, 1979; Stewardess School, 1987; Ghost Fever, 1987
The People vs. Ranchman, 1968; Alice and Wonderland, 1969; Purlie, 1970; I'm Not Rappaport, 1987