Sherman Hemsley, 74, a onetime mail sorter from South Philadelphia who moved on up to the East Side of New York as George Jefferson in a celebrated 1970s sitcom, died yesterday at his home in El Paso, Texas.
Mr. Hemsley, who was found by his nurse, apparently died of natural causes, according to police.
The Jeffersons, which ran from 1975 to 1985, was one of several groundbreaking black sitcoms of that era, including Sanford and Son and Good Times. George Jefferson was a character unlike any seen on TV before, a proud and successful African American businessman, cocky, edgy, and opinionated, determined not to be pushed around.
When he was introduced as a character in the sitcom All in the Family, Jefferson stood up to his bigoted neighbor Archie Bunker without flinching, giving as good as he got. It wasn't just what Jefferson said, it was how he carried himself, with a swaggering gait that challenged the world.
But Mr. Hemsley, a quiet man, was not George Jefferson. The Jenkintown-based freelance journalist Ed Condran, who interviewed Mr. Hemsley last year before the actor's appearance in Cherry Hill, described him as "very humble," not a George Jefferson trait.
"The Jeffersons showed a successful, professional entrepreneur, a positive image for black TV," said Acel Moore, associate editor emeritus of The Inquirer, who, like Mr. Hemsley, attended Barrat Middle School in South Philadelphia (although they didn't know one another then). "Some of the pieces in and around the humor were very serious. It was a positive image in many ways that added to understanding."
Mr. Hemsley was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for The Jeffersons and won an NAACP Image Award in 1982.
Mr. Hemsley also starred in two other sitcoms: Amen (1986-91), in which he played a deacon at a church in Philadelphia, and Goode Behavior (1996-97), in which he played Willie Goode, a paroled con artist. He also voiced Bradley P. Richfield in the family sitcom Dinosaurs (1991-94).
Born in South Philadelphia on Feb. 1, 1938, Sherman Alexander Hemsley grew up around 22nd and Christian Streets.
"Sherman Hemsley was a true son of the city," Mayor Nutter said through a spokesman. "I grew up watching him on All in the Family and The Jeffersons. He portrayed a businessman who never forgot where he came from. Every week, he offered a little insight into African American urban life. And I'm sure we'll continue to watch him on television reruns."
Mr. Hemsley was raised by his mother, who worked in a lamp factory. He didn't meet his father until he was 14.
As a child, he scrubbed stoops, carried groceries, and washed pans in a bakery, he told Inquirer interviewer Maralyn Lois Polak in 1988. Then he discovered acting.
"I was about 7 or 8, and I was playing fire, in a Fire Prevention play," he told Polak. "Yeah, I started off as a flame, and they threw water all over me, and my line was 'foiled again.' And it was fun that everybody and the kids were watching. ...
"I could get up there and talk, and the people would pay attention, and nobody told me to shut up. Because when you're a kid, everybody's always telling you to shut up! ... And from there on, every year I was doing something. And all the teachers would hire me. A teacher put on my report card in fifth grade, 'Quite an actor.' "
Mr. Hemsley attended Bok Technical High School, but dropped out in 10th grade to join the Air Force. After leaving the service, Mr. Hemsley began work on the midnight shift at the 30th Street post office. At night he attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts.
"I was acting on the side, doing plays around town, Society Hill Playhouse, Playhouse in the Park, Valley Forge Music Fair," he said. After about five years, he moved to New York City on the advice of the actor and director Robert Hooks, who had seen him a performance of The Blacks by Jean Genet at Society Hill.
Mr. Hemsley's big break came when All in the Family producer Norman Lear saw him in the musical Purlie on Broadway in 1970 and offered him the role of George Jefferson.