*The year was 1977. Jimmy Carter was President, “Saturday Night Fever” made John Travolta a movie star, ABC-TV aired the mini series “Roots,” Elvis Presley died and Sherman Hemsley, as the costar of the hit sitcom, “The Jeffersons,” was on fire.
I thought Hemsley, as the big mouth, prejudiced George Jefferson, was funny and irreverent. I watched the show. But I had no interest in knowing what made the guy who played Jefferson tick.
Thus, in March of ’77, when Soul Newspaper dispatched me to interview the 39 year old Hemsley (I remember the month, because the Isley Brothers 3+3 had just released the album, “Go For Your Guns,” featuring the ethereal ballad, “Footsteps In The Dark”), I stood on the doorstep of his spacious but unpretentious home nestled in L.A.’s trendy, woodsy Benedict Canyon, with the mission to get this over with as quickly as possible.
I rang the doorbell and a pleasant, thirty-something white guy in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and a JFK styled haircut answered. I told him who I was, and he invited me in. “Let me get Sherman for you.” He then disappeared up the staircase, leaving me standing there to take in the living room.
It was a nice room. Large but cozy. Wall to wall beige carpet and a great fireplace. And no furniture. Not a single piece, except a modern, mid-century floor lamp in a corner that stood about six feet.
And there were those speakers.
Two of them, standing at the other end of the living room, against the wall, one on each side of the room. But they weren’t simply stereo speakers; the two Godzilla sized state-of-the-art Cerwin-Vegas, each about the width of two average sized men standing side by side, went from the floor all the way up to the ceiling.
Sure, I’d seen speakers this size–but they were on a stage and accompanied by the Ohio Players or somebody. Who needs this much sound at home? I wondered how anyone managed to get them through the door. And how the neighbors felt about them.
Mr. Hawaiian shirt came back downstairs and offered me something to drink. He returned from the kitchen with my can of Coke just as Sherman Hemsley was making his way down the staircase. He, too, wore a Hawaiian shirt, his coupled with gray sweats and only socks. He was slight man, made even more diminutive without the authority of one of George Jefferson’s tailored business suits. I recall an earring.
“How’s it going?” he asked brightly, offering his hand. “Why don’t we have a seat?” He said this as if there was something in the room on which to sit. I followed his lead, the three of us slowly descending to the floor right where we stood, in the middle of the living room.
After a bit of small talk–during which I never inquired as to whether he’d just moved in or simply had a thing against furniture–I pressed RECORD on my cassette recorder and discovered there was more to Hemsley than the George Jefferson persona.
Indeed, Hemsley was everything Jefferson wasn’t: shy, introspective, almost meek. I learned that he played jazz piano; that he was acting in “Purlie” on Broadway in 1971 when TV producer Norman Lear offered him a recurring role on “All In The Family” as the self-important, entrepreneurial George Jefferson, who, with his wife Louise (played by Isabel Sanford) moved into the all-white, working class Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York–to the ire of the bigoted Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’ Connor.
Hemsley initially turned down the part, preferring to stay on Broadway, but Lear persisted. Hemsley and Sanford’s characters became so popular that in 1975 “The Jeffersons” was spun out of “All In The Family,” becoming an immediate hit.
At some point, Hemsley stopped mid-sentence. “Do you smoke?” The giant speakers and the earring suggested he probably wasn’t referring to Marlboros. Sheepishly, I confided that I had before, but not much. His buddy left the room and returned with a joint and an ashtray, but not before taking a musical request from Hemsley and popping in a cassette of some of the hardest, most esoteric guitar rock I’d ever heard. Even at a volume just above a purr, the floor vibrated.
Thankfully, my recorder got Hemsley’s story; the cloud of smoke notwithstanding, I was too mesmerized by the man himself to focus on details. At 22 and from Oklahoma City, I’d yet to meet the variety of characters in Los Angeles I’d later encounter to help me understand someone like Hemsley–an honest-to-goodness black flower child who loved progressive rock and wanted to discuss UFOs, world religion and the paranormal. Call me naïve, but at the time, I didn’t know there were black people like that.
However, there I was, sitting Indian style and sharing a blunt with a guy who made a very good living playing the hell of out a stereotypical black man, and who was anything but. It felt surreal. I never let on–at least I don’t think I did–but I was absolutely floored (no pun intended).
When I rose to leave, about an hour and a half later, Hemsley ignored my outreached hand and gave me a hug. Before I could get out the door he said, “Hey, wait a minute.” He left the room and returned with a small plastic sandwich bag that held about an ounce of that monster pot, which he identified as Panama Red. “Take this,” he said. “Have fun.”
I gunned it out of Benedict Canyon, excited to tell anyone who would listen, of my time with Sherman Hemsley and who he really was.
When I learned that Hemsley had passed away on July 24 of natural causes at his home in El Paso, Texas at 74, I reveled in the media hook that “The Jeffersons,” which ran for 11 seasons, remains the longest-running sitcom with a mostly black cast in the history of television.
I appreciated that its success made possible other prime-time sitcoms featuring black actors. I was tickled to know that the music to the iconic theme song, “Moving On Up,” co-written and performed by Ja’Net Dubois (a star of the ’70s sitcom “Good Times”), was composed by Jeff Barry, who also wrote, among other ’60s pop classics, the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.”
However, I thought it pure irony that for the rest of his career, Hemsley was pretty much typecast as the boisterous, egotistical Jefferson. Because if there ever was a guy who was acting, it was Sherman Hemsley.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]