Sherman Hemsley died on Tuesday at 74, but his work as George Jefferson, the star of the sitcom The Jeffersons, will live forever. The show ran from 1975 to 1985 and remains the longest-running network sitcom with a predominantly black cast in TV history. In its first year it was Nielsen’s fourth-best rated show on TV. But more importantly, George was a seminal character, representative of upwardly mobile blacks in the midst of the affirmative action-powered 1970s. He symbolized the post-Civil Rights Movement era nouveau riche black man benefitting from the economic tides, living in a deluxe penthouse apartment on the swanky upper east side of Manhattan with a live-in maid. Jefferson was a millionaire who owned seven dry cleaners — he got his start after his car was rear-ended by a city bus and his civil suit settlement allowed him to open one store, indicative of a world where the system could work for blacks. His social power was derived from his professional success, but we rarely saw George at work — the show took place almost exclusively in his home, as if showing us the king in his castle.
Hemsley played George as brash, arrogant, combative, swaggering, stubborn and refusing to suffer fools. I loved him for that. I think many did. He was one of the most abrasive and difficult-to-like men on TV, but he was adored precisely because he was unapologetic and defiant. His economic success gave him the ability to not have to ask anyone for anything, to not have to care, to not have to be humble, to never have to scrape. At that point in history it was liberating to live vicariously through a black man who wasn’t beholden to anyone, who could tell white people exactly what he thought of them, who might slam a door in their face when he was done with them.
Jefferson was conceived by legendary TV producer Norman Lear as a black version of Archie Bunker, the notoriously racist and sexist star of All In the Family, but while Bunker was a dinosaur — a holdover from the past — Jefferson was of his moment; of a time when blacks derived social power from financial gains. Where James Evans of Good Times was humbled by his work life and just barely keeping his head above water, making it any way that he could, Jefferson was a shining member of the black upper-middle class who stuck out his chest and peacocked around his pretty high-rise: one of those who’d finally gotten a piece of the pie. (The show’s opening theme song “Movin On Up” is arguably the best in TV history, using upbeat gospel tropes to sing of the family’s literal and figurative ascension.)
By the time Bill Cosby‘s Dr. Huxtable came along in the buppiefied 80s, black professional success was more common, so it felt right for him to be cool about it. But Jefferson’s persona came from an earlier era and proclaimed that he took no mess from whitey. We not only forgave him for being the proudest, loudest rooster on the farm, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Hemsley read the Zeitgeist and shaped Jefferson to give voice to the feelings of an ascendent generation at a critical juncture in history, and he made us proud.
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