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George Jefferson was a money-driven, bigoted, temperamental boor. But he was also one of the most beloved and celebrated characters in television history. Much of that credit belongs to Sherman Hemsley, the actor who breathed life into the bullying but lovable black businessman on The Jeffersons, and helped make the show one of TV’s longest-running sitcoms. His performance was all the more remarkable because offscreen, Hemsley—remembered by co-stars as kind and generous—was Jefferson’s polar opposite. “I’m just an old hippie,” he said in 1999. “You know, peace and love.”
Hemsley was born in Philadelphia and raised by a single mother; his “early life was a struggle,” said The Washington Post. He fell in love with acting in elementary school but didn’t pursue his passion, because “it was the sort of thing you didn’t do in my rough neighborhood,” he said. After dropping out of high school, Hemsley served four years in the Air Force in Korea and Japan before returning to his hometown, where he worked as a mail sorter for the post office. “In 1967, he transferred to a post office in New York, trying out for acting jobs in his spare time,” said the Los Angeles Times.
In 1973, Hemsley was catapulted from obscurity to prime-time fame after he was cast in the sitcom All in the Family. His performance as Archie Bunker’s neighbor George Jefferson, a “combative black man who backed down to no one,” was something that had rarely been seen on American TV, said The New York Times. The character proved so successful that a spin-off series was launched in 1975. The first episode of The Jeffersons followed George—the owner of a successful dry-cleaning business—and his long-suffering family as they left their working-class New York City neighborhood and moved to Manhattan’s fashionable Upper East Side.
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By the time The Jeffersons ended after 11 seasons, in 1985, Hemsley was the most visible and successful black TV actor after Bill Cosby—a rival he loved to needle. “It’s a very well-executed show,” he said of The Cosby Show in 1988. “Very professional. Of course, it’s not very funny. But it is professional.”
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