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.”

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