By Jayme Deerwester, USA TODAY
In 1973, All in the Family patriarch Archie Bunker met his match in George Jefferson, who was every bit his equal when it came to being bigoted, rude and utterly entertaining.
That was thanks to the deft comic touch of Broadway and TV veteran Sherman Hemsley, who died Tuesday at age 74 at his home in El Paso, his agent, Todd Frank, said the El Paso Sheriff's Department confirmed .
Born in 1938, the South Philadelphia native served in the Air Force and paid his way through drama school by working at the post office. He kept that day job even after moving to New York to pursue acting roles.
Hemsley was starring in the early '70s musical Purlie when All in the Family producer Norman Lear handpicked him to play the Bunkers' next-door neighbor in working-class Queens, N.Y. You could say George Jefferson's reputation preceded him - he was mentioned as early as 1971 but Family fans never saw him, the explanation being that he wouldn't even step foot in his racist neighbor's house until Hemsley finished his theatrical run and formally joined the cast in 1973.
After much bickering and name-calling - George loved to call Archie a "honky" - the two men began to change each other's attitudes about race, and viewers got to see life from the point of view of George, an entrepreneur with his own dry-cleaning shops, and his wife, "Weezy" (Isabel Sanford). In 1975, they "moved on up to the East Side" in their spinoff, The Jeffersons. In addition to seeing an affluent black couple with their own maid (Marla Gibbs), fans were introduced to another TV first: a mixed-race couple in Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker).
The Jeffersons ran for 11 seasons and garnered Hemsley an Emmy nomination for lead actor in a comedy in 1984. He returned to sitcom life two years later with NBC's Amen, in which he led an African-American cast as scheming Philly preacher Deacon Ernest Frye.
When Amen wrapped in 1991, Hemsley lent his voice to the animated series Dinosaurs. His last gig as a series regular was on UPN's Goode Behavior, which was canceled after one season in 1996.
Most of his later TV work consisted of guest-starring roles, including two (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Tyler Perry's House of Payne) in which he reprised the character of George Jefferson.
In a 1977 Jeffersons episode titled "George's Legacy," the character decided to immortalize himself by hiring a sculptor to create his bust. "A man's got to leave his mark," George tells the bust. "Something to prove that he's been here. Otherwise, there ain't no sense in showing up at all."