Sherman Hemsley, the comic actor best known for his portrayal of iconic character and legendary smartass George Jefferson, died Tuesday at his home in El Paso, TX, TMZ reports. Sources say the 74-year-old died of natural causes.
Hemsley first hit the national consciousness in the 1970s when he appeared on American sitcom All In the Family as the slick-talking Jefferson, the next-door neighbor of the show’s protagonist Archie Bunker. Jefferson, who was black, and Bunker, who was white, had a hilarious, racially-charged-yet-friendly relationship and constantly traded barbs. Hemsley’s character was so popular that it spawned a spinoff called The Jeffersons that premiered in 1975.
The Jeffersons was extremely popular among black audiences not only due to its humor, but also because it was one of the first programs to feature an African-American entrepreneur who moved his family into a better neighborhood. The show’s premise was that Jefferson, who owned a dry cleaning business, had become successful enough to move his family — a wife named Louise (affectionately called “Weezy”) and a son, Lionel — from their upper-middle class neighborhood next door to the Bunkers and into a “deluxe apartment in the sky” in New York’s trendy upper east side. George Jefferson embodied the confident cool to which many African-Americans of the time aspired.
He was also well-known for his turn as Deacon Ernest Frye in the 80s sitcom Amen, but he was always more widely known for George Jefferson.
Hemsley was known for his George Jefferson character long after The Jeffersons left the air in 1985, making cameo appearances either as George Jefferson or in undeniable George Jefferson mode (particularly marked by his bad attitude and trademark “stroll”) in shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin.
He also appeared in dozens of films and other television programs.
Hemsley was not married and had no children, but he will surely be missed by the millions he managed to entertain and inspire over the course of his 40-plus year career.