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Actor Sherman Hemsley found dead in his El Paso home of natural causes

By Whitney Burbank, WhitneyB@kvia.com
Leonard Martinez
Published On: Jul 24 2012 03:29:14 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 24 2012 02:23:20 AM CDT
Sherman Hemsley

Sherman Hemsley

EL PASO, Texas -

July 25, 2012 Update: Officials with the El Paso Medical Examiner's Office on Wednesday said Sherman Hemsley died of natural causes and no autopsy would be done. They added that Hemsley had been ill but did not elaborate.

Previous story from July 24, 2012: To most of America and much of the world, he was Mr. Jefferson.

Around Sherman Hemsley's East El Paso neighborhood, he was known simply as Mr. Sherman.

Hemsley, 74, was found dead Tuesday morning in his home by his nurse. Foul play is not suspected.

It was difficult for his neighbors not to say his name without smiling.

"He was like one of the family," one neighbor said.

Neighbors said they remember the famous actor strolling the sidewalks on his way to buy groceries or get a quick bite to eat.

"They really adored seeing him and they used to eat with him at Primo's," another neighbor said. Primo's is now called Rick's after a change in ownership.

"He was always like 'hey Rick, how ya doin' Rick?" owner Ricardo Maese said. "My first reaction was (that) I know him from 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air,' because that's what I grew up with back when i was a little kid."

Hemsley was often spotted either walking to or from Rick's restaurant.

"He would buy a chocolate cake, a bacon cheeseburger, and french fries," Maese said.

And while Maese had Hemsley's order down-pat, it wasn't as easy for the TV star to transition to Primo's new name when he left behind a handwritten message.

"When I got it, he decided to sign the wall, but he put it under Primo's," Maese said, recalling that he told Hemsley it was going to be called Rick's. "He said he was sorry and asked if he should change it, and I said no, keep it how it is."

Maese said he's happy to have Hemsley's name stick on the wall, even if the establishment it's addressed to doesn't exist anymore.

U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte first met Hemsley in 2000 when he was with the Texas Narcotic Association and he heard Hemsley was living in El Paso.

Hemsley dropped by the conference and they became friends since then.

“He was a really nice guy,” Almonte said. “A lot of people thought he’d be like the character (George Jefferson), but it was a character. He was really nice and quiet. He was a little guy with a huge heart.”

In addition to acting he also was a fan of jazz music and a musician who performed several times in El Paso.

Dennis Woo, operations director at KTEP, said Hemsley would call the El Paso radio station every so often and share stories off air with Woo.

"He would say 'God, I haven't heard that song in a long, long time,'" Woo said. "After he called a few times, I finally asked him what his first name was and he said 'You know me as Mr. Jefferson.'"

Woo said Hemsley would usually call the station after he heard an NPR story he was particularly interested in or around certain jazz festival times.

"There was one time he shared a story that he and Bill Cosby used to hang out at the Playboy Jazz Festival with all the luminaries. He would say that here's a guy that used to be a postman and here he is hanging out with all the greats and getting to meet Dizzy Gillespie, among others," Woo said.

Hemsley ended up in El Paso in 1999 after he declared bankruptcy and moved in with his manager, who lived in El Paso, according to Inside Edition.

He fell in love with El Paso because he liked the way the city looked and that it was a safe place to live, Almonte said.

"I saw him a few months ago when he came to San Antonio,” Almonte said. “He performed a show that ran for two weeks. He was so full of energy and didn’t seem like a 74-year-old. He looked like a star, a star that would never go out. I was lucky he was in my life."

Hemsley was more than just a fan of music. Over the past 10 years he has been creating funky, electronic, loops-based music in his home.

He gave a CD of instrumentals to his friend and musician Billy Townes with plans to record vocals over the tracks in the future. Townes played some of the music for ABC-7 with parts of it featuring a funky bass line and other parts showcasing beats.

The Philadelphia-born Hemsley first played the blustering black Harlem businessman on CBS's "All in the Family" before he was spun off onto "The Jeffersons," which in 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985 became one of TV's most successful sitcoms - particularly noteworthy with its mostly black cast.

With the gospel-style theme song of "Movin' On Up," the hit show depicted the wealthy former neighbors of Archie and Edith Bunker in Queens as they made their way on New York's Upper East Side. Hemsley and the Jeffersons (Isabel Sanford played his wife) often dealt with contemporary issues of racism, but more frequently reveled in the sitcom archetype of a short-tempered, opinionated patriarch trying, often unsuccessfully to control his family.

Hemsley's feisty, diminutive father with an exaggerated strut was a kind of black corollary to Archie Bunker - a stubborn, high-strung man who had a deep dislike for whites (his favorite word for them was honkies). Yet unlike the blue-collar Bunker, played by Carroll O'Connor, he was a successful businessman whose was as rich as he was crass. His wife, Weezie, was often his foil - yet provided plenty of zingers as well.

Despite the character's many faults - money-driven, prejudiced, temperamental, a boor - Hemsley managed to make the character endearing as well, part of the reason it stayed on the air for so long. Much like O'Connor's portrayal of Archie Bunker, deep down, Hemsley's Jefferson loved his family, his friends (even the ones he relentlessly teased) and had a good heart. His performance was Emmy and Golden Globe nominated.

"He was a love of a guy" and "immensely talented," said Norman Lear, producer of "The Jeffersons" and "All in the Family," after learning of his death.

"When the Jeffersons moved in next door to the Bunkers, I wanted to deliver the George Jefferson who could stand up to Archie Bunker," Lear recalled Tuesday.

"It took some weeks before I remembered having seen Sherman in 'Purlie' on Broadway."

Hemsley read for the part and "the minute he opened his mouth he was George Jefferson," Lear said. He said Hemsley was smaller than O'Connor's Archie but "he was every bit as strong as Archie."

Sherman Alexander Hemsley, though, was far less feisty. The son of a printing press-working father and a factory-working mother, Hemsley served in the Air Force and worked for eight years as a clerk for the 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 Lear about playing a character on the sitcom that would become "All in the Family."

Hemsley joined the show in 1973, immediately catapulting himself from an obscure theater actor to a hit character on the enormously popular show. Two years later, "The Jeffersons" was spun off. Among the numerous "All in the Family" spin-offs ("Maude," ''Archie Bunker's Place, "704 Hauser"), "The Jeffersons" was the longest-running.

The character, the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning stores, was devised, Hemsley said, as "pompous and feisty."

"All of it was really hard for 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."

After "The Jeffersons" was abruptly cancelled, Hemsley starred in the sitcom "Amen" as a fiery Philadelphia church deacon, Ernest Frye. The show latest five years, running 1986 to 1991.

Jackee Harry, a longtime friend who made appearances on the show, said she and Hemsley had planned to tour in the musical "Ain't Misbehavin'''. She said they had discussed it recently and that he seemed in good health and in good spirits.

"It's a sad, sad, sad day," she said from her home in Beverly Hills.

She recalled when the two of them were on a Manhattan sidewalk during the era of "The Jeffersons," and passersby went wild.

"He got mauled and mugged," she laughed. "He said, 'What's all the screaming about?' He was so popular and he didn't even know it."

She described him as "a very private person unlike George Jefferson. But he was very kind and very sweet, and generous to a fault."

Hemsley frequently turned up as a guest on sitcoms like "Family Matters," ''The Hughleys" and even, in a voice role, "Family Guy." He twice reprised George Jefferson, appearing as his famous character on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and, in 2011, on "House of Payne."

Hemsley, whose films include 1979's "Love at First Bite," 1987's "Stewardess School" and 1987's "Ghost Fever," released an album, "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," in 1989.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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