The year 2012 continues its assault on Black icons of the 1970s and 1980s, with the death of Sherman Hemsley at the age of 74. Like so many of his Black peers who became recognizable fixtures of popular culture in the post-Civil Rights Era, Hemsley was more known as a caricature of the television character he portrayed, than as the veteran comedic actor that he was. As George Jefferson, Hemsley’s career is a reminder of what was at stake for a generation of actors and actresses, for which opportunity, would forever be shackled by the expectations of putting on the best face of the race.
George Jefferson was the product of television producer Norman Lear’s imagination, a character powerful enough to earn its own spin-off sitcom, which ran for eleven seasons until its unceremonious cancellation in 1985. Jefferson began as a sidebar in Lear’s groundbreaking sitcom All in the Family, which starred Carroll O’Connor in the role of the soft-hearted bigot Archie Bunker and he was imagined as a reflection of what Bunker’s bigotry would look like in “blackface,” if you will. Though Jefferson’s wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) and Bunker’s wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) were good friends and Bunker’s daughter (Sally Struthers) and son-in-law (Rob Reiner) and the Jefferson’s son Lionel (Mike Evans) were also, Bunker and Jefferson were nemesises.
The tension between Jefferson and Bunker was as much about their views on race, as it was the fact that they inhabited fundamentally different worlds. Bunker was a lunch-pail wage earner, while Jefferson was a self-made businessman who would eventually own a chain of dry-cleaners. When the Jeffersons famously moved on up to the east side, it was to a world that Bunker could never legitimately inhabit. If audiences were to be expected to laugh at Bunker’s rather backward views on race, ethnicity and gender (as opposed to laughing with him, which no doubt many did), the same was expected of George Jefferson.
Indeed Jefferson’s signature strut and use of so-called “Black slang”—what some might refer to as buffoonery—was likely the means by which Lear and his writers sought to undercut what was a palpable tension throughout The Jefferson’s eleven season run: George Jefferson embodied the very success the Civil Rights Movement was premised on. Many of the series’ characters continue to resonate in popular culture, particularly Hemsley and Marla Gibbs, who left The Jeffersons, and shortly thereafter, starred in other series, Amen and 227, portraying characters almost as popular as Jefferson and Florence.
The series was regularly in the top-20—and the top-10 between 1979 and 1982—during an era in which racial politics in this country were largely defined by the Bakke challenge to Affirmative Action, the election of Ronald Reagan (whose presidency signaled the dismantling of many Civil Rights era policies), and the Atlanta Child Murders. George Jefferson’s so-called buffoonery, no doubt, provided salve for those Americans uncomfortable with dramatic racial and cultural shifts; no matter how successful Jefferson was, they knew he was never really going become part of the club to which he so doggedly desired to belong.
For Hemsley, George Jefferson meant navigating his need to sustain his career and the needs of the character, with some respect for the actresses and actors, who before him, had no such options. Hemsley was a product of the famed Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), founded by playwright Douglas Turner Ward, actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone and was the training ground for generations of Black actresses and actors including Esther Rolle, John Amos and Janet DuBois, all of Lear’s Good Times, plus Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and contemporary actors and actresses like Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
The early generations of NEC were faced with many of the same challenges that Hemsley faced: how to cultivate the humanity of Black characters that were never intended—intentionally or unintentionally—to be fully-fledged humans by the writers and producers that created them. In the case of those folk who worked on television sitcoms, they were further limited by the conventions of the format, which rarely lent itself to depth and nuance.
In this latter instance, actors and actresses like Sherman Hemsley and his television wife Isabel Sanford, were held to standards that their White peers never had to deal with. Hemsley, for example, possessed a gift for physical comedy—that was part of what the strut was about—that was comparable to that of figures like Dick Van Dyke (particularly on The Dick Van Dyke Show), Larry Hagman, during his day on I Dream of Jeannie, John Ritter and Don Knotts, whose Three’s Company often shared the top-10 spot in the Nielsen’s with The Jeffersons.
Whereas the aforementioned actors were sometimes seen as geniuses of the style, who never had the burden of representing for their race or ethnic group, too often Black comedians of that like, Bert Williams, Lincoln Perry (“Step n’ Fetchit), Hemsley and Jaleel White, are simply reduced in the Black imagination as simply acting like “coons.” A Black actor would have never been able to get away with the “bugged eyes” that were Knotts’ specialty, dating back to his days as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.
Ultimately what made the character of George Jefferson so timeless, was that he was damn funny. George Jefferson is not the sum total of Hemsley’s legacy, but there are few that can claim a character as recognizable.
Mark Anthony Neal is a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on twitter @NewBlackMan.