CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

RIP Sherman Hemsley: 6 Stories About The Jeffersons

Original image
Getty Images

Actor Sherman Hemsley has passed away at the age of 74. Raised by a single mom in Philadelphia, the diminutive actor dropped out of high school in order to join the Air Force. After serving four years, he took a job with the U.S. Postal Service during the day for the next eight years while studying acting at various night classes and workshops. He eventually worked his way to Broadway, which is where TV producer Norman Lear spotted him.

Unlike many actors who spend a lifetime distancing themselves from a character, Hemsley embraced being typecast as blustery, opinionated George Jefferson and parlayed that persona into steady work. Besides various sitcoms and commercials after The Jeffersons was cancelled, he was even booked as a keynote speaker at many dry cleaning industry conventions! We hope you enjoy this rerun of a previous column as Sherman Hemsley moves on up to the ultimate deluxe apartment in the sky...

January 1975 saw the premiere of an All in the Family spin-off starring the Bunkers' next door neighbors, The Jeffersons. Not only did this new sitcom spend more time on the air (11 seasons) than the parent which spawned it, it also reigns as the longest-running American TV series with a predominantly African-American cast.

1. A Piece of the Pie

The JeffersonsThe character of George Jefferson was as opinionated and bigoted as Archie Bunker - and certainly as vocal - but he was also much smarter and more ambitious.

George had always been a savvy businessman. As a child, he earned money shining shoes, and business boomed when he paid a friend to push people into mud puddles to create customers. When George received $3,200 in an insurance settlement after a car accident, he used the cash to purchase a dry cleaning store. With hard work and dedication, he expanded that one outlet into a seven-store chain, which prompted the social-climbing George to move his family to a luxury apartment in a Manhattan high-rise.

2. Where's George?

Henry & George JeffersonFrom the character's first appearance on All in the Family, producer Norman Lear had pegged Sherman Hemsley to play George Jefferson. But when All in the Family became a hit, Hemsley was tied up on Broadway as the co-star of Purlie, and was understandably reluctant to break his contract. Lear improvised and hired Mel Stewart as a sort of "placeholder." In the sitcom's storyline, Stewart posed as George Jefferson when he joined George's wife Louise (played by Isabel Sanford) for dinner at the Bunker home. It was later revealed that he was actually Henry Jefferson, George's brother. The excuse given for George's absence was that he refused to break bread with the Bunkers. Henry Jefferson appeared in a few more All in the Family episodes before Hemsley assumed the role of the Jefferson family patriarch.

3. Weezy!

George & Louise JeffersonIsabel Sanford was 50 years of age when she got her big break in show business: The role of the disapproving maid, Tillie, in the hit film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?. Her performance caught the eye of Norman Lear, and he cast her as Louise Jefferson, a role which would net her an Emmy Award. The on-air chemistry between Sanford and Hemsley was so perfect that the two appeared together on TV commercials and other sitcoms as George and Weezy for years after The Jeffersons ended. They were so convincing as a married couple, in fact, that most viewers didn't realize that Sanford was 21 years older than Hemsley; old enough to be his mother!

4. Let Love Rule

When Roxie Roker auditioned for the role of Jeffersons neighbor Helen Willis, producers worried whether she would be believable as an African-American woman married to a white man. Roker promptly produced a family photo that that depicted her Caucasian husband, TV producer Sy Kravitz. To keep an eye on him, Roker often brought her school-aged son, Leonard, to the set. She confided to her co-stars her worry that the youngster didn't seem to be interested in anything other than music. She need not have been concerned, of course; little Lenny Kravitz grew up to win a surplus of Grammy Awards, American Music Awards, platinum albums, and other assorted honors.

5. Waiting for Bentley

Paul Benedict was performing with Theatre Company of Boston in the 1960s when an audience member came backstage and introduced himself as an endocrinologist. He then told Benedict that, based on his facial structure "“ particularly his oversized chin - he might be suffering from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly. Thanks to this early diagnosis, Benedict was able to get treatment while the disease was in its early stages. Before he landed the role of quirky British neighbor (and United Nations translator) Harry Bentley on The Jeffersons, Benedict was best known as Sesame Street's "Mad Painter." He performed in 10 skits that proved so popular with viewers that they were re-run for 15 years on subsequent episodes before being pulled from the mix in the mid-1980s. The reason? Some feared that the Painter's antics might inspire the country's youth to express themselves through illegal graffiti. The actor behind Bentley wasn't British; he grew up in Massachusetts.

6. Beans Don't Burn on the Grill

"Movin' On Up," the toe-tappin', gospel-flavored theme song for The Jeffersons, was co-written by Jeff Barry and Ja'Net Dubois. Barry was a veteran Brill Building songwriter with hits like "Leader of the Pack" in his portfolio; Dubois was best known as gossipy neighbor Willona Woods on another popular African-American sitcom, Good Times. Ja'Net belted out the lyrics with such confidence that it's hard to believe that "Movin' On Up" marked her debut as a professional singer.

Original image
John Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
Original image
John Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images

On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

Original image
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
Original image
Getty Images

Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios