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Sherman Hemsley played the 'black Archie Bunker' of sitcom

Sherman Hemsley managed to make TV's George Jefferson – a money-driven, prejudiced, temperamental boor – an endearing character. Sherman Hemlsey passed on Tuesday in Texas.

By Jake Coyle and Juan Carlos LlorcaAssociated Press / July 25, 2012

Isabel Sanford, left, and Sherman Hemsley, starred in the television sitcom "The Jeffersons" from 1975-85. Hemsley, the actor who made the irascible, bigoted George Jefferson of "The Jeffersons" one of television's most memorable characters and a symbol for urban upward mobility, died Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at his El Paso, Texas home.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

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El Paso, Texas

George Jefferson was a bigot. A loudmouth. Rude. Obsessed with money. Arrogant. And yet he was one of the most enjoyable, beloved characters in television history.

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Much of that credit belongs to Sherman Hemsley, the gifted character actor who gave life to the blustering black Harlem businessman on "The Jeffersons," one of TV's longest running and most successful sitcoms — particularly noteworthy with its mostly black cast.

The Philadelphia-born Hemsley, who police said late Tuesday died at his home in El Paso, Texas, at age 74, first played George Jefferson on the CBS show "All in the Family" before he was spun off onto "The Jeffersons." The sitcom ran for 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985.

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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, 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.

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