(AFP) - CHICAGO: Actor Sherman Hemsley, who rose to fame in the 1970s as the wise-cracking father in the hit sitcom “The Jeffersons,” has died at the age of 74, police said Tuesday.
Hemsley was found dead in his El Paso, Texas home, No foul play is suspected, local police said in a statement.
“The Jeffersons” was one of the longest-running US television shows with a predominantly black cast. It focused on how the family adjusted to its newfound affluence after the success of a dry cleaning business.
The show explored serious themes such as race and class — and Hemsley’s character George Jefferson was a notable bigot who did not like the interracial marriage of his neighbors in the upscale Manhattan apartment.
“It was groundbreaking,” Hemsley said in a 2003 interview with the Archive of American Television.
“We were worried about the interracial marriage — and said ’oh wow, it’s going to get us cancelled because nobody had done it before’.”
But reaction to the show was largely positive, Hemsley said, adding he was surprised at how well George Jefferson was received.
The show was not as overtly political as “All in the Family,” in which the Jeffersons were first introduced as neighbors to an even more notable bigot, Archie Bunker.
Born in Philadelphia on February 1, 1938, Hemsley was introduced to acting as a child but did not consider it as a career choice until after he left the Air Force.
He moved to New York, working at the post office by day and taking acting classes at night.
His big break came when he was cast in the Broadway show “Purlie”, catching the eye of “All in the Family” creator and writer Norman Lear.
Hemsley joined the cast in 1973 before moving on to “The Jeffersons” in 1975. He starred in 253 episodes before the show was cancelled in 1985.
Hemsley took on a softer role in the sitcom “Amen” in 1986, playing a religious deacon named Ernest Frye for five seasons.
He continued to perform in cameos and other smaller roles until as recently as last year, when he reprised the George Jefferson role on Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne”.