Actor Sherman Hemsley first gained attention portraying Gitlow in the Broadway musical version of “Purlie” (1970). However, it was his famed portrayal of George Jefferson on the popular sitcom “The Jeffersons” (1975-1985), where he received an Image Award and Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, which earned him real recognition. In 2004, nearly two decades after the demise of the show, Hemsley earned an award as Favorite Cantankerous Couple from TV Land, which he shared with his costar Isabel Sanford (born in 1917, died 2004). His character on the series was named one of TV Guide's “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” in 2004. Other TV credits include regular roles in “Amen” (NBC, 1986-1991) and “Goode Behavior” (UPN, 1996) and recurring roles in ABC's “Family Matters” (1994-1995), “Sister, Sister” (1995-1998) and Fox's “The Hughleys” (1999-2000). He also voiced B. P. Richfield in the ABC animated series “Dinosaurs” (1991-1994). As a film actor, Hemsley, who made his debut in “Love at First Bite” (1979), appeared in “Mr. Nanny” (1993), “The Misery Brothers” (1995), “Senseless” (1998), “Up, Up, and Away” (2000, TV), “Hanging in Hedo” (2007) and “For the Love of a Dog” (2008).
In his free time, Hemsley enjoys writing, reading and relaxing outdoors in the sun. He practices meditation and Yoga.
Childhood and Family:
Sherman Hemsley was born on February 1, 1938, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The son of a factory worker mother, he dropped out of school and spent four years with the U.S. Air Force. Upon completing his service, he returned to Philadelphia and worked as a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service. It was while working for the post office that Sherman honed in on his acting skill and became a member of the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company. He also studied the craft at the University Of Philadelphia Academy Of Dramatic Arts and with Lloyd Richards in New York.
Sherman Hemsley made his TV debut in his native Philadelphia on a local comedy series named “Black Book.” Moving to New York in the late 1960s, the member of Douglas Turner Ward's noted Negro Ensemble Company appeared in his first off-Broadway show in a 1968 production of “The People vs. Ranchman.” He went on to play the role of the Mad Hatter in another off-Broadway play, “Alice in Wonderland,” the following year. However, Hemsley did not get his first real break until he landed the role of Gitlow in the Broadway musical “Purlie” (1970). The show was a huge hit and Hemsley earned praise for his performance. During that period, Hemsley supported himself by working at a post office in Manhattan.
After “Purlie,” Hemsley joined the touring company of the successful musical “Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope” (1973). During its run in San Francisco, the actor was discovered by television producer Norman Lear, who gave him a recurring role on the CBS ground breaking comedy series “All in the Family.” As George Jefferson, the actor was so popular that after two years on the show he was given his own sitcom.
Debuting in January 1975, the spin-off “The Jeffersons” became one of three booming television sitcoms having African-Americans in starring roles. It maintained a strong run for 11 seasons, during which time Hemsley picked up a 1982 Image Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy Series or Special, a 1984 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and a 1985 Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a TV-Series, Comedy/Musical. Actress Isabel Sanford, who was twenty one years older than Hemsley, played his onscreen wife Louise.
In between the sitcoms, the actor made his feature film acting debut as Reverend Mike in “Love at First Bite” (1979), a comedy starring George Hamilton and directed by Stan Dragoti. In addition, he appeared as Robert in a 1979 episode of “The Incredible Hulk,” reprised his acclaimed stage role of Gitlow Judson for the TV movie version of “Purlie” (1981), played two different characters in two TV episodes of “Fantasy Island” (1981, 1982) and appeared in three episodes of “The Love Boat” (1977-1983). In 1984, he played George Jefferson on a two part pilot of the short lived comedy series “E/R,” starring Elliott Gould.
After the cancellation of “The Jeffersons” in 1985, Hemsley was cast as an ill-natured Philadelphia clergyman named Ernest Frye on the NBC sitcom “Amen,” costarring Anna Maria Horsford. Another successful series, it ran from 1986 to 1991. While working on “Amen,” the hard working actor was also seen in such movies as “Stewardess School” (1986), “Combat High” (1986, TV), “Ghost Fever” (1987), “Club Fed” (1990) and “Camp Cucamonga” (1990, TV). He made a successful comeback to series TV with his voice role of B. P. Richfield on the Emmy Award winning animated series “Dinosaurs” (ABC, 1991-1994). Hemsley also appeared in episodes of “Wallace Pitney” (1992), “Designing Women” (1993), “Burke's Law” (1994), “Thunder in Paradise” and “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (both 1994), played the supporting role of Burt Wilson in the independent film “Mr. Nanny” (1993), opposite Hulk Hogan, costarred as Buzzard Bracken in the Christmas movie “Home of Angels” (1994) and was cast as Reverend Scheister in the comedy “The Misery Brothers” (1995). 1994 to 1995 also saw Hemsley play the recurring role of Carl Winslow's boss, Captain Savage, on the ABC sitcom “Family Matters.”
In 1996, Hemsley starred as Willie Goode in the UPN sitcom “Goode Behavior,” alongside Dorien Wilson, Bianca Lawson, Alex Datcher and Scott Grimes, but the series only lasted one season. He then appeared in a series of guest spots, including “In the House,” “Martin,” “Minor Adjustments,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (played George Jefferson), “Clueless,” “Cousin Skeeter,” “Sister, Sister” and “City Guys.” His movie credits included “Casper: A Spirited Beginning” (1997, TV), “Senseless” (1998) and “Jane Austen's Mafia” (1998), in which he made a cameo appearance as George Jefferson. It was in 1999 that Hemsley was reunited with Isabel Sanford to appear in a series of Old Navy Commercials playing the Jefferson couple. The same year also found the actor filing for bankruptcy.
Entering the new millennium, Hemsley was cast as Edward Marshall/Steel Condor in the made-for-TV film “Up, Up, and Away” (2000), which starred and was directed by Robert Townsend. He also played the supporting role of Chip Oswald on the comedy film “Screwed” (2000), with Danny DeVito. The same year, he completed his four episode role of Mr. Williams on the Fox sitcom “The Hughleys” (1999-2000).
Hemsley resurfaced in 2004 when he provided the voice of “Mr. Ed” in the made-for-TV film of the same name. Also that year, he was awarded a TV Land for Favorite Cantankerous Couple for his work in “The Jeffersons,” which he shared with Isabel Sanford who died in July that same year of cardiopulmonary arrest and heart disease. Hemsley then guest starred as Sherman Hemsley in a 2005 episode of “Family Guy” and played Henry Hunter in the comedy film “Hanging in Hedo” (2007). Recently, he starred as Mr. O'Donnell on “For the Love of a Dog” (2008), a family movie written and directed by Sheree Le Mon.
TV Land: Favorite Cantankerous Couple, “The Jeffersons,” 2004
Image: Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy Series or Special, “The Jeffersons,” 1982