RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
George Jefferson was an upwardly mobile black businessman with a longsuffering wife, equal parts pride and frustration when it came to his family and neighbors. Actor Sherman Hemsley brought that vivid character to life on television in the 1970s and '80s. He was 74 when he died yesterday at his home in El Paso, Texas. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this remembrance of the actor behind the headstrong, high-strung center of "The Jeffersons."
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG, "THE JEFFERSONS")
JA'NET DUBOIS: (Singing) Well, we're moving on up...
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: George Jefferson made it rich in the dry-cleaning business, then moved with his wife Louise - Weezy, as he called her - into a deluxe New York City apartment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JEFFERSONS" THEME SONG)
DUBOIS: (Singing) We're moving on up to the East Side. We finally got a piece of the pie.
BARCO: "The Jeffersons" was one of TV's first shows to focus on an affluent black family. George, Louise and son Lionel often had to deal with racial prejudice, and George was quick to hurl the world honkey. But the show was a comedy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JEFFERSONS")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is Mr. Jefferson. He's here to get a present for his wife.
SHERMAN HEMSLEY: (as George) Thank you. I just want to get her something, something that says love.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Love. I have something perfect that says love. Here it is, and it's only $20,000.
HEMSLEY: Well, you have anything that says like?
BARCO: Sherman Hemsley once talked to the Archive of American Television about developing his character's rough exterior, energy and ego and his famous strut.
HEMSLEY: Started out with the pompous, feisty - what do you mean? I could be more street, or just grrr. And then by yelling, it's just experiences, friends that I grew up in South Philly, walking the way we walked in South Philly when you think you bad. What you looking at? Yeah, that's me. So this fit right into the character.
BARCO: "The Jeffersons" was a spinoff of the hit sitcom "All in the Family." They were introduced as the neighbors of racist Archie Bunker.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
CARROLL O'CONNOR: (as Archie) Hey, hey, Jefferson, there's a switch for you: this guy giving you the big yes, sir.
HEMSLEY: (as George) Why? He's a bartender, ain't he?
O'CONNOR: (as Archie) Yeah, but what I meant is I'm used to having it the other way around.
HEMSLEY: (as George) Oh, yeah? How many servants you got in that mansion you're living in?
O'CONNOR: (as Archie) What do you mean by that?
HEMSLEY: (as George) Let me tell you something about people. That bartender's willing to work for me because if you got enough green in your pocket, then black becomes his favorite color.
BARCO: Sherman Hemsley once released an R&B album and recorded a rap single.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T THAT A KICK IN THE HEAD")
HEMSLEY: (Singing) Lone Ranger, ain't that a kick in the head?
BARCO: Hemsley also performed on Broadway. Here's something else you might not know about him: He dropped out of high school to serve in the Air Force, and before he pursued acting as a career, he worked for the post office for eight years. On TV, Hemsley also played a deacon from his hometown in Philadelphia on the show "Amen." And he guest starred on various shows, from "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" to "Family Guy." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.