Sherman Hemsley passed away Tuesday. The brand of edgy, combative and controversial television comedy that defined his career died long before that.
Hemsley, 74, first gained fame as Archie Bunker’s black, block-busting dry-cleaner neighbor, George Jefferson, in “All in the Family” (set in the Astoria section of Queens, by the way). Eventually Hemsley and his fictional wife Louise and son Lionel became so popular that they were given a show of their own, “The Jeffersons,” and spirited off to Manhattan, to claim a piece of the American dream in a “deluxe apartment in the sky” and manage what was now a seven-store chain.
“The Jeffersons” would run for 11 seasons and 253 episodes, 45 more than “All in the Family.”
In the way it tackled changing mores and conflicting opinion in 1970s America, “All in the Family” was always an acerbic and ferocious show. Archie was a staunch traditionalist who still believed Franklin Delano Roosevelt had sent the country down the wrong path, Vietnam was a righteous fight, a woman’s place was in the home, Jews existed mainly to serve as lawyers and accountants to Christians, and the races were best left separate.
The show actually let Bunker make the case for these views, however ineptly, and left it to son-in-law Michael (Meathead) and daughter Gloria (Little Goyul) to debate him.
George Jefferson, when he moved in next door to Archie, was no more likable, and no less a racist. He was just as angry and certain, and on every issue except race, would have agreed with Archie more often than with any other character on the program. Theirs was the conservatism of patriarchs.
When Hemsley’s character headed off to his own show, the tone softened, but only a bit. Interracial marriage, the relative status of the races, religion and intergenerational strife continued to provide the grist for the program’s mill. One memorable episode took the form of a flashback to the assassination of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jefferson’s attempt to come to terms with that terrible event while protecting his store from rioters.
Hemsley deserves to be celebrated as an actor, but these two shows deserve to be celebrated for more than their performances. Programming, that tackled such contentious debates in a way that gave credence to both sides, or at least made how they came to claim their positions comprehensible, has disappeared from prime-time fare.
You could be a liberal and enjoy “All in the Family,” or “The Jeffersons,” but you could also be a conservative and enjoy watching them. What the arguments around their dinner tables had in common with the angry debates around ours was that, in the end, we still had to be family, friends and neighbors. We still had to co-exist, and support each other.
It’s hard to think of a single network comedy or drama today that takes on topics like this and show the strengths and weaknesses of the characters on both sides so clearly that anyone could enjoy the program, from any place on the political spectrum. In truth, I don’t know many people who’d willingly watch a show that gave a fair, equal platform to ideas they disagreed with.
Sherman Hemsley will be missed. The type of television that allowed him to shine has been missing for years.