Hemsley burst onto the scene in the early 70s, in the wake of the country’s racial upheavals, playing a character that sometimes appeared cartoonishly brash and egotistical on the surface, but Hemsley also gave him a big heart and an even bigger element of pride. It was his pride in himself and his race—and his willingness to stand up to white people he considered ignorant, such as Carol O’Connor’s Archie Bunker—that endeared him to black people throughout the decade that The Jeffersons were on the air. Even after the show’s run from 1975-1985, Hemsley and his wife Weezy, played by Isabel Sanford, became known to a new generation through the syndicated reruns that constantly circle through the television lineup.
George Jefferson was created by the television pioneer Norman Lear to play a next-door neighbor and foil for the racist Archie Bunker on All in the Family. Lear made Jefferson just as flawed as Bunker—perhaps to increase the comic possibilities but also to make both of them acceptable to America. When The Jefferson’s moved on up to their own spinoff, George became a symbol of a new breed of black man—a business owner and entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, no matter who he offended. In fact, George even sometimes referred to blacks as “niggers” on the show—something I just noticed on a recent rerun and which I had somehow never realized during viewings of the show 30 years ago.
Whenever George got too ridiculous, there was always his wife Weezy to put him in his place. Isabel Sanford, who was actually 20 years older than Hemsley, died in 2004 at the age of 86.
Hemsley was born in South Philadelphia and dropped out of high school to join the Air Force. When he returned to Philly, he worked for the post office while taking acting classes at night, eventually making his Broadway debut in Purlie.
After the Jeffersons, the theatrically trained Hemsley went on to play a church deacon in the sitcom Amen, which stayed on the air for five years.
Hemsley, who had no wife or children, was also a professional singer who released a single in 1989 on Sutra Record called “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” in 1989. In 1992, he released Dance, an R&B album.