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.
The 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.
From 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.
Isabel 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!
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.
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.
"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.