Sherman Alexander Hemsley (1938-2012)

Sherman Hemsley, December 3, 1999
Courtesy Luke Ford (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Sherman Hemsley, December 3, 1999
“Image Ownership: Luke Ford”

American actor Sherman Alexander Hemsley was an Air Force veteran and postal worker before becoming a television actor. He is best known for his role as George Jefferson on the CBS television series All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and as Deacon Ernest Frye on the NBC series Amen.

The son of William Hemsley, a printing press worker and his mother who worked at a lamp factory, Hemsley was born on February 1, 1938 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Hemsley attended Barrat Middle School, Central High School for ninth grade, and Bok Technical High School for tenth grade, before deciding to drop out and enlist in the military.  Hemsley’s military service included serving in the U.S. Air Force in Japan and Korea.

Upon returning to the U.S., he worked for the postal service and began studying acting on the side. In the late 1960s, he appeared in a host of off-Broadway productions before landing the supporting role of Gitlow in Purlie, a 1970s Broadway musical that starred Melba Moore and Cleavon Little. Hemsley joined the cast of All in the Family in 1973 as the iconic George Jefferson. In 1975, the spin-off The Jeffersons began production and enjoyed 11 seasons.

In 1986, Hemsley joined the cast of NBC’s Amen as Deacon Ernest Frye until production ended in 1991. As a voice actor, Hemsley played Bradley P. Richfield in ABC’s Dinosaurs, which ran four seasons, ending in 1994.

After retiring from television, he and fellow actor Isabel Sanford reprised their roles in the 1990s and early 2000s in guest spots on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and in commercials for The Gap, Denny’s, and Old Navy. In 1995, he appeared on the primetime sitcom Sister, Sister as Grandpa Campbell, Ray Campbell’s father, and made a voice appearance as himself on Family Guy. In 2009, he made a cameo appearance in the motion picture film American Pie Presents: The Book of Love. He and Marla Gibbs reprised their Jeffersons roles in Tyler Perry’s House of Payne in 2011.

In addition to acting, Hemsley had a musical career. In 1989, he released a single track, Ain’t That a Kick in the Head and followed with 1992’s Dance, a rhythm and blues album.

A very private man, Hemsley never married or had children. He succumbed to cancer in July 2012 in his hometown, El Paso, Texas.  His death caused a legal battle between Flora Enchinton, the named heir to the Hemsley estate, and Richard Thornton who claimed to be his brother and rightful heir to the estate estimated at $50,000. In July 2012, a judge granted the rights to the estate to Enchinton.

Nominated for an Emmy in 1984 and a Golden Globe in 1985 for The Jeffersons, he won an NAACP Image Award in 1982 and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2012.  Sherman Hemsley was interred at Fort Bliss National Cemetery in his hometown of El Paso, Texas in 2012.