Sherman Hemsley's career once hung by a stitch


I'm out in L.A. at the moment, reporting on the coming TV season.

But when I heard Tuesday afternoon that Sherman Hemsley had died, I wished I'd had the opportunity to speak more often to the man who'll always be George Jefferson to me.

Here's what I wrote about him, though, in a story for the Daily News in 1996, when Hemsley was appearing in a UPN series called “Goode Behavior”:

If Sherman Hemsley had been able to sew a fine seam, TV might never have been the same.

The actor enrolled in South Philadelphia's Bok Vocational-Technical School in the mid-'50s to learn to be a tailor, but "then I saw how hard it was to do those little stitches and I changed" to retail sales, "which I hated," finally ending up in restaurant training ("because you could eat the food you cooked").

"But I always knew I wanted to be an actor," Hemsley, 58, concluded in a phone interview last week.

The actor who successfully carried a bantam rooster of a character called George Jefferson from an occasional appearance on CBS' "All in the Family" to a 10-year run on "The Jeffersons" will launch his fourth sitcom, "Goode Behavior," at 9 p.m. Monday on UPN.

In the show, Hemsley plays a charming con man and ex-convict, Willie Goode, who comes to live with his stuffed shirt of a son, a university professor, played by Dorien Wilson ("Dream On").

"I like the idea of me being the wild one," Hemsley said. "Gives younger people a chance to see that your mind never changes no matter how old the body gets."

Asked about any differences he saw between working with the fledgling UPN and with CBS and NBC (where he did "Amen" for five seasons), Hemsley was quick to embrace the new:

"These people are real nice people," he said, adding, "You don't have to stand outside of offices and wait."

Hemsley still apparently holds a small grudge against CBS, which he said rejected an updated version of "The Jeffersons" last season. He said he had "no idea" why nearly every new show with African Americans in the lead had landed on UPN and the WB this season (with the notable exception of CBS' "Cosby").

"They (the four major networks) just think that they're high and mighty, that they know it all," he said.

"Being over 50 is hard out here too. . . They figure people over 50 are just waiting to die."

The character Hemsley's playing happens to be the name of Philadelphia's first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode (the W. stands for Willie). Just a coincidence, said Hemsley, who's met the former mayor. His character, however, will be from Philadelphia, as was his character on "Amen," Deacon Frye.

"I'm proud to be from Philadelphia. That dance I do (as George Jefferson), it's the Philly Slop.

"People call it the George Jefferson," he said, but "it's the Slop," a dance taught to him by a boyhood friend in Philadelphia, Freddy Brooks.

And it may make a comeback on "Goode Behavior," he said.

"At least I'm going to be doing the same walk . . . but being from Philly, I can always go back to the Slop.”