Sherman Hemsley, 74, a onetime mail sorter from South Philadelphia who moved on up to the East Side of New York as George Jefferson in a celebrated 1970s sitcom, died Tuesday at his home in El Paso, Texas.
Mr. Hemsley, who was found by his nurse, apparently died of natural causes, according to police.
The Jeffersons, which ran from 1975 to 1985, was one of several groundbreaking black sitcoms of that era, including Sanford and Son and Good Times. George Jefferson was a character unlike any seen on TV before, a proud and successful African American businessman, cocky, edgy, and opinionated, determined not to be pushed around.
When he was introduced as a character in the sitcom All in the Family, Jefferson stood up to bigoted neighbor Archie Bunker without flinching, giving as good as he got. It wasn't just what Jefferson said, it was how he carried himself, with a swaggering gait that challenged the world.
But Mr. Hemsley, a quiet man, was not George Jefferson. The Jenkintown-based freelance journalist Ed Condran, who interviewed Mr. Hemsley last year before the actor's appearance in Cherry Hill, described him as "very humble," not a George Jefferson trait.
" The Jeffersons showed a successful, professional entrepreneur, a positive image for black TV," said Acel Moore, associate editor emeritus of The Inquirer, who, like Mr. Hemsley, attended Barrat Middle School in South Philadelphia (although they didn't know one another then). "Some of the pieces in and around the humor were very serious. It was a positive image in many ways that added to understanding."
Mr. Hemsley also starred in two other sitcoms: Amen (1986-91), in which he played a deacon at a church in Philadelphia, and Goode Behavior (1996-97), in which he played Willie Goode, a paroled con artist. He also voiced Bradley P. Richfield in the family sitcom Dinosaurs (1991-94).
Born in South Philadelphia on Feb. 1, 1938, Sherman Alexander Hemsley grew up around 22d and Christian Streets.
"Sherman Hemsley was a true son of the city," Mayor Nutter said through a spokesman. "I grew up watching him on All in the Family and The Jeffersons. He portrayed a businessman who never forgot where he came from. Every week, he offered a little insight into African American urban life. And I'm sure we'll continue to watch him on television reruns."