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RIP Sherman Hemsley, the man behind the unlikeliest icon of black achievement, George Jefferson



hemsley-george-jefferson3951.jpgHe was headstrong and arrogant, occasionally racially prejudiced and given to shouting for his wife the same way some people might call for a problem child.

But George Jefferson was also a TV icon -- the central character in the longest-running sitcom centered on a black cast in TV history, a spin off of Norman Lear's landmark All in the Family comedy centered on Archie Bunker's former neighbors. Every TV fan of a certain age can sing the gospel-tinged theme song Movin' On Up, and most kids from my neighborhood could do the George Jefferson - a dance based on the funky shuffle the character broke into during moments of celebration.

For that reason, the pop culture world should take a moment to recognize the eccentric, talented actor who created George Jefferson, Sherman Hemsley, who passed away of natural causes today in El Paso, Texas, according to TMZ and the Los Angeles Times.

Like a lot of African American kids growing up in the '70s, I dug the cornball flavor of Hemsley's Jefferson, even while I knew his character was a bit old fashioned and politically incorrect. It was great to see a black character credited with building a business successful enough to get out of the ghetto; even if the plotlines on The Jeffersons sometimes left you wondering how hardheaded George managed to pull it off.

Though they were blown up to cartoonish proportions -- especially his conflicts with long-suffering wife Louise "Weezy" Jefferson, played as the ultimate straight woman by Isabel Sanford -- Jefferson's issues were the issues of smart, successful black folks, moving up in the world as the bonds of officially sanctioned segregation and oppression were loosened.

Cultural critics often talk of the way black performers in the early days of television used their talent to transcend stereotypes, turning characters which might be limited into truer touchstones just by a turn of phrase, an attitude or stride. With his energetic cackle and weaving strut, Hemsley had that in spades, handling the words of mostly white sitcom writers with the same aplomb Jefferson used to handle everyone in his orbit.

hemsley-nickatnite.jpgSo even as the world laughed at Jefferson's suspicion of white folks and desperation to impress his new, wealthy neighbors, others saw storylines where George had to relate to pals from his old neighborhood or rein in a hard-partying, wayward son and nodded ruefully at the truth within. (given what George Jefferson likely went through to get where he was, its understandable he might get a little twisted on certain issues of race and class.)

Small wonder the show lasted 11 seasons before its cancellation.

Perhaps as proof of the character's enduring impact, Hemsley kept playing George Jefferson even after the show ended, playing the Jefferson-like, irascible church deacon Ernest Frye on the series Amen. He also recreated the characters on shows such as Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Tyler Perry's House of Payne.

As a fan, I always wondered if Hemsley -- a singer and stage actor who came to fame in the Broadway show about a traveling preacher, Purlie -- felt hemmed in by the impact of George Jefferson. After so many years playing him, it seemed impossible to imagine Hemsley as anyone else; which can be the kiss of death for an actor.

Regardless, Hemsley leaves as his legacy a character burned into America's pop culture consciousness like few others -- an enduring symbol of social progress in ways intentional and not.

[Last modified: Thursday, July 26, 2012 10:09am]


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