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Remembering George Jefferson, Television Icon

Posted: 07/24/2012 9:47 pm

George Jefferson, entrepreneur, pillar of the Upper East Side community and legendary example of black American financial ascendency has died.

George Jefferson was born in Harlem in 1929. Having lost his father at the tender age of ten-years-old, George was forced to drop out of high school and take care of his mother. He left home to serve in the U.S. Navy as a cook during the Korean War and upon returning to Harlem, promptly married his longtime sweetheart, Louise (affectionately known as Weezy). While making his career as a janitor and living with his wife in a rundown Harlem apartment, George used his entrepreneurial spirit, and $3200.00 gained from an insurance claim after a car accident to start Jefferson's Cleaners -- the business that facilitated his moving on up to the east side of Manhattan.

George spent much of the 1970's working through the anger and frustration many black men felt, having had to spend most of their lives fighting against the direct, overt racism prevalent in this country during the first half of the century. That anger often expressed itself through hilariously bigoted tirades and harebrained get-rich-quick schemes. It also showed itself in his frequent arguments with his white neighbors; firstly, the equally bigoted, Archie Bunker; and then later, Tom Willis. Over time, as he grew closer to his maid Florence, his stance on race evolved -- to the point that he eventually considered Tom one of his closest friends. And as his wealth grew, George set his sights on more; he expanded his dry cleaning empire and even considered buying a posh home in Bel Air... from none other than Phillip and Vivian Banks.

But George Jefferson was a New Yorker through and through and so there he remained until his last days. In death he joins his beloved wife Louise, his son, Lionel, his neighbors, Helen and Tom Willis and his longtime maid and friend, Florence Johnston.

In the history of American television, there aren't too many characters that deserve an obituary -- but Sherman Hemsley's George Jefferson most definitely does. The character's life spanned four decades of television, from Archie Bunker's foil in All in the Family to the spin off show that gave Hemsley's considerable talent top billing -- The Jeffersons. In the 1990s the character and his wife made a cameo appearance on Will Smith's Fresh Prince of Bel Air and more recently, a turn on Tyler Perry's House of Pain. Iconic, polarizing, trailblazing -- all words that accurately reflect the overarching impact the character had on television and society.

The Jeffersons represented the yang to All in the Family's yin, and like its precursor, in many ways, it was a social experiment. At a time when America was trying to reconcile and understand how its racial divide would iterate itself and be defined in the final thirty years of the century; at a time when the first seeds of the concept of political correctness were being planted, The Jeffersons addressed the issue of race head on, making it the unabashed focus of its first few seasons. Instead of tip-toeing around an issue situational, comedic television would normally avoid, like miscegenation, The Jefferson's boldly gave us one of the small screen's first interracial couples in Helen and Tom Willis. George Jefferson was not the typical, happily affluent black-bourgeoisie character much of American pop-culture wanted to sell (and buy) at the time. He was the hard-working hustler from Harlem who made it and never changed. He was the 1970's nouveau riche black man struggling to reconcile the trappings of his wealth against the huddled masses in Harlems across the country.

While the show was in many ways groundbreaking, it also played to many of the long-standing stereotypes some black artists and scholars have long fought against. The slapstick minstrelsy bursting from George's signature walk, the faux-rhythm & blues, caricatured gospel of the show's theme song, the exaggerated jive often used by tangential characters -- a televised revolution this was not. In a 1989 op-ed for the New York Times, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. noted the following:

We can start with George Jefferson, who we might think of as a Kingfish (Amos 'n' Andy) or as a Fred Sanford (Sanford and Son) who has finally made it. Jefferson epitomized Richard Nixon's version of black capitalism, bootstrap variety, and all of its terrifying consequences. Jefferson was anything but a man of culture: Unlike the ''Cosby'' living room, his East Side apartment had no painting by Jacob Lawrence or Charles White, Romare Bearden or Varnette Honeywood. Despite his new-found wealth, Jefferson was pure street, draped in a Brooks Brothers suit. You did not want to live next to a George Jefferson, and you most certainly did not want your daughter to marry one. The Jeffersons was part of a larger trend in television in the depiction of black men. We might think of this as their domestication, in direct reaction to the questing, macho images of black males shown in the 60's news clips of the civil rights movement, the Black Panthers and the black power movement.

Still, the show's shortcomings are muted in many ways by the lasting humor Hemsley's character was able to consistently capture and by the love the character showed for those he was closest to. As Hemsley noted in an interview for the Academy of American Television

"My relationships with the Willis' and slamming the door in faces, you know, all that was hard for me because it was rude ... I didn't like being that way. But it was the character -- I had to do it. I had to be true to the character. If I was to hold anything back it wouldn't have worked. But I mean by me loving Louise, and by Archie loving Edith, you get away with being goofy and stupid because people say, well at least he loved something, at least you had that human feeling -- that human thing happening inside which is about love, which is where we all come from. If you show that then you know at least he's not completely a fool."

To be clear, there was more to Sherman Hemsley than George Jefferson. In addition to his television roles as George Jefferson, he also starred on NBC's Amen, and ABC's Dinosaurs. He was a well traveled stage actor, most famous for his part in Phillip Rose and Peter Udell's musical adaptation of Ossie Davis' book Purlie. He also spent four years in the Air Force, worked at the post office and was an avid rock fan. Still, it's impossible to think of Hemsley without thinking of his most famous role. And it is in remembering the iconic George Jefferson that we remember what an important contribution Sherman Hemsley made to the lexicon of American television.

 

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