The late actor Sherman Hemsley garnered an international fan base during his lifetime. Yet he always maintained close ties to his hometown. Today, his name remains closely associated with the City of Brotherly Love. Sherman Hemsley enjoyed a stellar stage and television career.
Sherman Hemsley’s father, William, helped operate a printing press. His mother also worked outside the home, holding employment in factories during World War II. She gave birth to the couple’s son, Sherman, in 1938 in South Philly.
As a child, Sherman Hemsley participated in school plays. His first acting role involved portraying the flames in a fire safety skit in elementary school. However, he apparently never considered acting as a likely career choice during his childhood in Philadelphia. He attended Barrat Middle School before entering Central High School. After a challenging 9th grade year, he transferred to Bok Technical School. He dropped out of high school after 10th grade to enlist in the Air Force.
Launching a Career
Sherman Hemsley served four years in the military during the 1950s. Afterwards, he returned home to Philadelphia and started working for the United States Postal Service. He became interested in acting, and began taking evening theater classes in Philadelphia. He pursued this busy schedule for nearly a decade before deciding to test his acting skills in New York City.
In the mid-1960s, he relocated to the Big Apple. Still working as a postman by day, he participated in the recently formed Negro Ensemble Company during his leisure hours. The enterprise trained many African-American actors and actresses who eventually became popular stars, including Phylicia Rashad, Louis Gossett,Jr., and Samuel L. Jackson. Wikipedia reports Sherman Hemsley later joined the Urban Arts Corporation founded by Vinnette Carroll (as a Ghetto Arts Program initiative).
Sherman Hemsley appeared in a number of off-Broadway stage productions during this period. Then in 1970, at the age of 32, he received a big break: the producers of the 1970s musical Purlie cast him for the role of Gitlow, a supporting character in the Broadway production. He appeared in both the original version and a 1972 revival, touring widely in North America. The play dealt with a Black preacher returning to his Southern home town during the era of Jim Crow laws.
His appearance in the successful Broadway play attracted the notice of Norman Lear. The television producer invited Sherman Hemsley to appear in his new sitcom, All in the Family (1971-1979). At the time, the CBS series had created shockwaves among critics by portraying racial prejudice in stark terms. The nationally broadcast hit aired as a prime time comedy. The plot centered around tensions between a bigoted, hawkish blue collar worker named “Archie Bunker” (played by Carroll O’Conner) and his well-educated, anti-war graduate student son-in-law (played by Rob Reiner). Sherman Hemsley reportedly wanted to accept a part on the show, but could not do so at the time due to his previous commitment to tour in the Purlie revival.
Developing an Iconic TV Character
After the Broadway stage tour ended, Sherman Hemsley did enjoy an opportunity to appear in a recurring guest role on All in the Family. He portrayed the fictional character George Jefferson, a bigoted African-American businessman. Actress Isabel Sanford, twenty years his senior, played his wife, Louise Jefferson. The duo attracted audience empathy, and two years later Norman Lear spun off a second comedy based around them. CBS broadcast The Jeffersons between 1975 and 1985. The series helped make Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford nationally recognized stars.
The sitcom displays the triumphs and foibles of George Jefferson, a Black entrepreneur who achieved commercial success as the owner of several dry cleaning stores. His household relocates to an upscale apartment on New York’s affluent East Side. Cast members included Roxie Roker, Mike Evans, and Paul Benedict. During the series’ decade-long run, Sherman Hemsley became a familiar face to U.S. television audiences. For his work on The Jeffersons, he eventually received an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe, and an NAACP Image Award. He later struggled to distinguish his public persona from George Jefferson, noting during a 1996 interview he was “nothing like him.”
Returning to Philadelphia (on Television)
Sherman Hemsley followed up his success on The Jefferson by quickly accepting another leading television sitcom role in 1985. The series Amen aired on NBC between 1986 and 1991. In the half-hour comedy, the star portrayed a clergyman residing with his daughter in Philadelphia. The cast included Anna Maria Horsford, Clifton Davis, Jester Hairston, and Roz Ryan. Many of the scripts revolved around humorous, highly contrived, situations impacting members of the largely Black congregation.
In 1987, Sherman Hemsley appeared in a starring role in Ghost Fever, a comedic motion picture. He continued making frequent guest appearances on prime time television series during the 1980s and the early 1990s. Some of his credits include roles in The Twilight Zone (1985), The Love Boat (1977-1983), and Designing Women (1993). Despite his widely ranging roles, he remained closely associated with the fictional character George Jefferson. He would later reprise that role in appearances on three un-related productions: E/R (1984) (a Norman Lear production), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990), and House of Payne (2006). He also appeared in a series of television commercials with his former co-star Isabel Sanford during the 1990s and early 2000s.
During the latter part of the 1990s and the first decade of the Twenty-First Century, Sherman Hemsley received fewer roles. He accepted a voice-over role in Dinosaur between 1991 and 1994, portraying BP Richfield on the ABC series. He also had a small recurring role on the sitcom Sister, Sister (1994-1999). He played James Williams on The Hughleys between 1999 and 2000.
In 2012, He was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. That same year, he passed away on July 24 at age 74. He died at his home in El Paso from lung cancer complications. He willed his estate to his partner, Flora Enchinton Bernal.
Sherman Hemsley shielded his personal life from the public. Actress Jackee Harry described him as “kind” and a very “private person”. Yet he reportedly expressed pride in his Philadelphia birthplace!