Friends and family remembered actor Sherman Hemsley at his funeral Wednesday in Texas by showing video clips of him as George Jefferson, the TV role that was his best known.
About 150 people attended the service at Cielo Vista Church in El Paso. Hemsley, 74, died of lung cancer on July 24, but a fight over his estate delayed his burial.
Mourners couldn’t help but laugh as they watched the clips of Hemsley playing the feisty, bigoted owner of a chain of dry-cleaning businesses on “The Jeffersons.”
“He helped us to laugh, gave us an opportunity to forget the troubles, the stresses of life,” El Paso Police Department chaplain Sam Faraone said during Hemsley’s eulogy.
Hemsley, an Air Force veteran, was buried at the Fort Bliss National Cemetery.
“The best way I can describe it is by how we released a dove” at the burial, longtime friend Flora Enchinton Bernal said after the Fort Bliss ceremony. “Just set him free, let him be. Let him explore the universe, be one with the universe.”
She was named as Hemsley’s heir in his will, but the late actor’s half-brother from Philadelphia, Richard Thornton, challenged it. An El Paso judge ruled the will valid earlier this month.
Sherman Alexander Hemsley was the son of a printing press-working father and a factory-working mother. He served four years in the Air Force and worked for eight years as a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service.
Having studied acting as an adolescent at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began acting in New York workshops and theater companies, including the Negro Ensemble Company. For years, he kept his job at the post office while acting at night, before transitioning to acting full time.
He made his Broadway debut in 1970’s “Purlie,” a musical adaptation of Ossie Davis’ Jim Crow-era play “Purlie Victorious.” (Hemsley would later star in a 1981 made-for-TV version of “Purlie” as well.) It was while touring the show that Hemsley was approached by television show producer Norman Lear about playing a character on the sitcom that would become “All in the Family.”
Hemsley joined that show in 1973, immediately catapulting himself from an obscure theater actor to a hit character on the enormously popular show. Two years later, his George Jefferson character from “All in the Family” became the lead on the spin-off “The Jeffersons.”
The Jefferson character was devised, Hemsley said, as “pompous and feisty.”
“All of it was really hard … because — rude, I don’t like to be that way,” Hemsley said in a 2003 interview for the Archive of American Television. “But it was the character, I had to do it. I had to be true to the character. If I was to pull back something, then it just wouldn’t work.”
Robert Almonte, the U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas who also was a friend of Hemsley, said during the funeral that the actor was “a down-to-earth man” and “didn’t like to be seen as George Jefferson.” He said Hemsley was completely different from that character.
“That’s how great an actor he was,” Almonte said.
After “The Jeffersons” was canceled, Hemsley starred as fiery Philadelphia church deacon Ernest Frye in the sitcom “Amen” from 1986 to 1991.
He frequently turned up as a guest on sitcoms including “Family Matters” and “The Hughleys.” He even landed a voice role in “Family Guy.”
Hemsley twice reprised the George Jefferson role — on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and last year on “House of Payne.”
In the later years of his life, he moved to El Paso in West Texas and made it his home. Almonte said he once asked Hemsley about his family in Philadelphia and the actor said: “I’m from Philly, but El Paso is my home now and Flora is my family.”
Enchinton Bernal said after four months of fighting to have her beloved friend Hemsley buried, she is looking forward to having a peaceful Thanksgiving. She said she will “set a plate on Sherman’s position, where he used to sit.”