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Sherman Hemsley has died

Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley, who co-starred on

Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley, who co-starred on "The Jeffersons," seen after participating in a Nick At Nite's luncheon in New York. Credit: AP, 1998

Sherman Hemsley, best known as sourpuss George Jefferson who moved uptown and into TV history, died yesterday at age 74.

He had been living in El Paso, Texas. The cause of death was not immediately released. "Sherman Hemsley has been pronounced dead El Paso Sheriff's Department has confirmed," the actor's agent Todd Frank said in a statement released to Reuters.

One of TV's biggest and most beloved stars during "The Jeffersons" 10-year run, he and co-star Isabel Sanford were also arguably the biggest success stories to emerge from "All in the Family" — both starred in only a handful of episodes in the early '70s.

They had been cast as Archie and Edith Bunker's next door neighbors, George and Louise - "Weezie" - Jefferson, who later moved on to their own spin-off which last nearly as long as "Family." Hemsley had been a successful stage actor - "Family" creator Norman Lear first saw him in a musical - but George Jefferson was to become his nearly unshakeable doppelganger - a character so distinctive, so indelible, that he could never quite escape its long shadow.

Born in South Philadelphia in 1938, Hemsley dropped out of school to join the Air Force, later working for the U.S. Post Office while studying acting at night. Moving to New York City, he joined the Negro Ensemble Company - which nurtured other future stars of screen and TV like John Amos, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, and Samuel Jackson - and later starred in the hit Broadway musical "Purlie," based on the Ossie Davis play about Jim Crow laws.

Hemsley was touring with the show when Lear saw him and cast him in "All in the Family," though Hemsley wouldn't join for a couple of years until his stage commitment had ended. As such, he wasn't in "Family" for long (about a dozen episodes) but the run was memorable enough to launch a spin-off with Sanford that lasted ten years on CBS, from 1975 to 1985.

""The Jeffersons" was about black aspiration and social mobility and - while pointedly less political than the mother show - was essentially a bookend to "All in the Family." Like Achie Bunker, George was often a mean-spirited ill-tempered bigot who mellowed over the show's run. Explaining the genesis of the character in an interview some years ago, Hemsley said it was based on "experiences - the way we walked, the way we talked - in South Philly. We used to practice these walks. You'd go through a different neighborhood and you needed an attitude - 'what YOU looking at?'"

Grumpy, dyspeptic George and endlessly patient Weezie became hugely popular characters o f '70s TV, and Hemsley never fully abandoned the role, reprising George briefly on "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," even on commercials. "The Jeffersons" wasn't Hemsley's last hit show: He appeared as a church deacon in "Amen" and had roles in "Family Matters," "Sister, Sister," and "The Hughleys." Details about survivors were not released late yesterday.  Check out the old Rolonda Watts feature below. And the judge from "Amen" .?.?.  

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