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Saying So Long to Sherman Hemsley, Whose Big Break Came on Broadway

Hemsley and Jeffersons co-star Isabel Sanford

Before he became part of sitcom lore, Sherman Hemsley was part of the Broadway scene.

Beginning in 1970, Hemsley was a member the musical Purlie. Although it was only a supporting role, it ultimately led to the role of lifetime.

Early in the show’s run, there was buzz backstage that a major Hollywood producer would visit the cast.

That producer was Norman Lear, who was on precipice of greatness with All in the Family set to debut the following January.

Lear’s appearance followed Melba Moore and Cleavon Little winning Tony Awards for Purlie on April 19.

As Hemsley told the Archive of American Television in 2003, he didn’t expect Lear would have any interest in the young actor.

“I was just sort of new, and happy to be there,” Hemsley recalled. “I figured he didn’t even notice me. I figured he noticed me, but he was coming to see them. I wasn’t as nervous as I guess I should have been.”

The next day many screen tests were given. Making the decision to read a monologue, Hemsley used a scene from the main Purlie character.

“I thought I messed up,” Hemsley admitted in the 2003 interview. “[Lear] said he saw something in my personality, from what I hear.”

But Hemsley would hear nothing for the next few years. He continued his work with Purlie on Broadway and touring the country. It was 1973, while on location in San Francisco that Hemsley made a call to Lear’s office.

It was perfect timing as Lear was casting for the part of George Jefferson on All in the Family.

“They had been looking for me, but I had no idea because I didn’t have an agent or an address,” Hemsley told the Archive of American Television. “Everything I had was with me in my little bag.”

The genesis of Hemsley’s bigoted character began after casting Lionel Jefferson’s uncle as his temporary father figure.

“And then, I remembered from Purlie, a musical, which [Hemsley] sang and danced,” Lear told the Archive of American Television in 1998. “And knew in a flash we had the father.”

After being an occasional thorn in Archie Bunker’s side, Hemsley “moved on up” to the East Side, as his character proved popular enough to sustain its own show. The Jeffersons debuted in 1975, remaining on the air for 11 seasons. The trailblazing was the longest running American sitcom with a predominant Black cast.

Hemsley died yesterday at his El Paso home of natural causes. He was 74.

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