Sherman Alexander Hemsley (February 1, 1938 – July 24, 2012) was an American actor, most famous for his role as George Jefferson on the CBS television series All in the Family and The Jeffersons, and as Deacon Ernest Frye on the NBC series Amen. He also played Earl Sinclair’s horrifying boss, a Triceratops named B.P. Richfield, on the Jim Henson sitcom Dinosaurs.
Hemsley was born and raised around 22nd and Christian Streets in South Philadelphia by his mother, who worked in a lamp factory.. He didn’t meet his father until he was 14. He attended Barrat Middle School, Central High School for 9th Grade and Bok Technical High School for 10th, when he dropped out of school and joined the United States Air Force, where he served for four years. On leaving the Air Force, he returned to Philadelphia where he worked for the Post Office during the day while attending the Academy of Dramatic Arts at night.. He then moved to New York, continuing to work for the Post Office during the day while working as an actor at night. He starred as the character Gitlow in the early 1970s Broadway play Purlie.
Sherman Hemsley performed with local groups in Philadelphia before moving to New York to study with Lloyd Richards at the Negro Ensemble Company. Shortly after, he joined Vinnette Carroll’s Urban Arts Company appearing in these productions: But Never Jam Today, The Lottery, Old Judge Mose is Dead, Moon On A Rainbow Shawl, Step Lively Boys, Croesus, and The Witch. He made his Broadway debut in Purlie and toured with the show for a year. In the summer of 1972 he joined the Vinnette Carroll musical Sorry, I Can’t Cope ensemble in Toronto, followed a month later in the American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater. This production had Hemsley in Act I performing the solo “Lookin’ Over From Your Side” and in “Sermon” in Act II.
While Hemsley was on Broadway with Purlie, Norman Lear called him in 1971 to play the role of George Jefferson on his burgeoning new sitcom, All in the Family. Hemsley was reluctant to leave his theatre role, but Lear told him that he would hold the role open for him. Hemsley joined the cast two years later. The characters of Hemsley and co-star Isabel Sanford were secondary on All in the Family, but were given their own spin-off series, The Jeffersons, less than two years after Hemsley made his debut on the show. Such was Hemsley’s and Sanford’s compatibility and credibility as a married couple that no one seemed to notice or care that in real life Sanford was twenty years older than Hemsley. The Jeffersons proved to be one of Lear’s most successful shows, enjoying a run of eleven seasons through 1985.
1980s, 1990s and 2000s
Though Hemsley was largely typecast as George Jefferson, he continued to work steadily after the show’s cancellation. He teamed up with the show’s original cast members when The Jeffersons moved to Broadway for a brief period.
Hemsley joined the cast of NBC’s Amen in 1986 as Ernest Frye, an unscrupulous church deacon much like his George Jefferson character. The show enjoyed a run of five seasons, ending in 1991. Hemsley then was a voice actor in the ABC live-action puppet series Dinosaurs, where he played Bradley P. Richfield, main character Earl’s sadistic boss. The show ran for five seasons, ending in 1994.
Hemsley largely retired from television acting, although he and Isabel Sanford appeared together in the late 1990s and in the early 2000s, reprising their roles in guest spots on television programs such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, commercials for The Gap, Old Navy and Denny’s, and dry cleaning conventions. He and Sanford also made a cameo appearance in the film Sprung. They continued to work together on occasion until Sanford began having health problems leading to her death in 2004.
In recent years prior to his death, Hemsley made a voice appearance as himself in the Seth McFarlane animated comedy Family Guy. He appeared in the film American Pie Presents: The Book of Love. In 2011, he reprised his role as George Jefferson once again, along with Marla Gibbs as Florence Johnston in Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.