He 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 spinoff 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 Jeffersons' 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 Tuesday in El Paso, Texas. He was 74.
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 sometimes left you wondering how hardheaded George managed to pull it off.
Though they were blown up to cartoonish proportions — especially he conflicts with long-suffering wife Louise "Weezy Jefferson, played as the ultimate straight woman by Isabel Sanford (who died in 2004) — 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.
So 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 re-created the characters on shows such as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Tyler Perry's House of Pain.
As a fan, I always wondered if Hemsley — a singer and stage actor who was born in Philadelphia and trained at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts — 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.