Hemsley Remembered As Obnoxious, Beloved Jefferson

Actor Sherman Hemsley was best known for his role as George Jefferson on the hit sitcom The Jeffersons. He died Wednesday at the age of 74. Host Michel Martin speaks with Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans about the actor's career and the impact his roles had on TV and in our culture.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now, if you are of a certain age, as we say, then you probably know this theme song by heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVIN' ON UP")

JA'NET DUBOIS: (Singing) Well, we're movin' on up to the East Side to a deluxe apartment in the sky.

MARTIN: And you probably don't just know the song. You might even be able to recite some of the stars' favorite lines by memory. We're talking about Sherman Hemsley who, for 11 years on the hit show, "The Jeffersons," played George Jefferson, a character who was equal parts obnoxious, hilarious and beloved.

Sherman Hemsley passed away yesterday at the age of 74. He was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role on "The Jeffersons" and that show is the longest running sitcom featuring an African-American cast, even beating out "The Cosby Show."

We wanted to talk more about Sherman Hemsley and his career, so we've called Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times. Welcome, Eric. Thanks so much for joining us.

ERIC DEGGANS: No problem. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, people might remember that "The Jeffersons" was a spinoff from another iconic show, "All in the Family." Hard to imagine that people don't know these shows, but what exactly made these shows so cutting edge, and "The Jeffersons," in particular?

DEGGANS: Well, George Jefferson was - number one, he had problems with white folks. He was very suspicious of them and he always - one of his foils on the show was this couple - were a white husband and black wife. And that, at the time, was kind of cutting edge to have on a sitcom. You know, he was constantly in conflict with them because he was uncomfortable with them.

So, in the same way that "All in the Family" sort of set an old-fashioned white guy against the backdrop of this changing social fabric, George Jefferson was also kind of a figure like that. And then George was also struggling with the fact that he was this successful black man who was moving into this wealthy world that he didn't know that well and he wanted to be accepted, but he also had ties to his old community and he was constantly torn between those two things.

So, even in the context of this, you know, sometimes silly sitcom, they took on some really important issues.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Eric, you know, it's no secret this is something that you've talked about and written about and continue to write about, how ambivalent African-Americans often are about the characters on television who become iconic. This character was not universally beloved. I think it important to talk about that. And why is that?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, at that time in the '70s, you had characters that - you know, when I was a kid, I'd call them jive-talking characters with a certain attitude that I think even white TV producers associated with black culture. And, in some ways, it was just great to see black people on television and it was great to see black people being unapologetically black.

But, in another way, it may have felt a little stereotypical to people who were looking for a more realistic portrayal, and the fact that George had such a problem with interracial marriage and had such a problem with some progressive notions that were emerging at the time - I mean, as a kid, that made me uncomfortable.

But he was so entertaining and, you know, black performers often could take roles that were created for them by white producers and invest them with so much of themselves that they transformed the role and they made it more true just by the force of their personality and their talent. And I think Sherman Hemsley definitely did that in this case.

MARTIN: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Los Angeles.

Eric, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DEGGANS: Sure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVIN' ON UP")

DUBOIS: (Singing) We finally got a piece of the pie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, the new president of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama, took office earlier this week upon the death of the incumbent, John Atta Mills. But, before those dramatic events took place, Dramani Mahama talked with us about his own personal dramas and his nation's tumultuous political history, which he recounts in a new memoir.

PRESIDENT JOHN DRAMANI MAHAMA: It had such a profound influence and probably shaped the rest of my life going forward.

MARTIN: Ghanaian leader John Dramani Mahama is with us on his new memoir, "My First Coup D'Etat." That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Olympic athlete Tumua Anae isn't as well known as swimmer Michael Phelps, but when she's in the pool as a goalkeeper for the U.S. Women's Water Polo Team, all eyes are on her.

TUMUA ANAE: Goaling takes a lot of mental strength. I mean, you're either the hero or the zero. You either block the shot or you don't.

MARTIN: We continue our conversations with Olympic athletes next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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