Hemsley got his big break on "All in the Family." His character, the wise-cracking George Jefferson, was so popular, that Hemsley was soon given his own spinoff. "The Jeffersons" ran for 11 years and had one of the best, most beloved theme songs in television history. Following the end of the "Jeffersons" run, Helmsley starred in another sitcom, "Amen," in which he played the paternal Deacon Frye.
Hemsley’s role on “The Jeffersons” was a landmark. As Entertainment Weekly put it, George Jefferson was the “first black character presented as an arrogant, intolerant bigot -- the black Archie Bunker -- George was also one of TV’s first upper-income blacks, appearing nearly a decade before 'The Cosby Show' began its own long run.”
In a 2003 interview, Hemsley talked about the history of George Jefferson. When he debuted the character on “All in the Family,” Hemsley said he was told to act “pompous and feisty.” While he was off-stage waiting to make his very first entrance on “All in the Family” (already a huge hit), Hemsley said he thought to himself: “Should I run? What the heck did I get myself into? Do I know my lines?”
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Such nervousness was understandable. George Jefferson was a high-profile character. Prior to Hemsley’s casting, George had been mentioned on “All in the Family” many times. However, the character never actually came on stage, a device that built up a kind of mystery around the role. “I didn’t know if I was going to be laughed at or laughed with,” Hemsley said.
He got his start on Broadway, where he was noticed by legendary TV producer Norman Lear. It was Lear who convinced Hemsley to take the role of George Jefferson. For better or for worse, Hemsley was associated with the role for the rest of his career. The show ran for more than a decade, but wasn’t given a proper send-off when it went off the air. The cast later put on a stage play that wrapped up the different storylines.
In recent years, Hemsley appeared on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "The Surreal Life," "Family Guy," and "Tyler Perry's House of Payne." He had no wife or children.