Sherman Hemsley & Jeffersons’ co-star, Isabel Sanford
Way back, in the mid-70s, I was hired by Norman Lear’s Tandem-TAT Productions. From my first moment at the company, I knew that I was—to use an absolutely appropriate phrase here—walkin’ in high cotton.
My initial office was on the studio lot at MetroMedia Square on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Across the hall from me, and running down the hall, were the table-reading rooms for many of the great Lear sitcoms of the day.
Almost directly across from my door was the door to The Jeffersons‘ reading room where the cast would assemble and—weekly—read new scripts aloud with the writers, the director, and other creative types.
The door just to the left of the Jeffersons was the door to the men’s room where I first met All in the Family‘s Caroll O’Connor. (But, that’s a story for another day.)
First or second week on the job, I walked out of the men’s room, heard my phone ringing, and started to dash across the hall. I almost ran Sherman down. We hadn’t met. Seeing him, I let the phone ring.
Trying to apologize for our near collision, I sputtered out, “I, I loved you on Broadway, Mr. Hemsley.”
“Broadway? You saw Purlie?”
“Three times, Mr. Hemsley.” I offered my hand to shake his.
He said, “Purlie? And, you saw it three times?” I nodded. He smiled with that impish grin of his. His eyes twinkled as he said, “Call me Shermie.”
And, he hugged me. With both arms, he hugged me. We became quick friends
Whenever we saw each other—in the halls of MetroMedia, at Tandem’s corporate offices in Century City, in a parking lot, or on the street—we’d yell out, “Hugs!” We’d yell it loud and we’d run toward each other and hug. It was our inside joke and those moments were sweet and funny. Those moments were a joy for me—sadly they were upsetting for some of the lookers-on. Their startled and annoyed faces were both hysterical and alarming.
I came to adore Sherman. He was such a gentleman, such a gentle human being. I’ll miss the man forever. Small in stature, he had a heart as big they come.
I’ll leave you with one of his songs from the Broadway production of Purlie.
Postscript: My mom came from Kansas to visit me a year or so after I started working for Lear. One evening I took her to my office at MetroMedia. Not to seem overly impressed, she brought some needlepoint work. between tapings of The Jeffersons, I introduced her to Sherman and he was lovely and gracious, and he moved forward to hug her.
My mom took a short step back, lifted her chin just a little, and shook his hand. I was reminded, at that very moment, why—at an early age—I’d felt such a powerful need to leave Kansas.
[UPDATE – August 31, 2012] Above, I wrote about the death of my dear friend, Sherman Hemsley. I’m updating that post with an article from CNN, and as a point of reference, consider that Sherman hated cold weather.
(CNN) — Sherman Hemsley’s body lies in an El Paso, Texas, funeral home refrigerator more than a month after his death while a court decides who gets the actor’s remains.
A Philadelphia man claiming to be the “Jeffersons” actor’s brother is challenging a will Hemsley signed a month before his death, according to the funeral home handling his arrangements.
“It is disgraceful,” Hemsley’s longtime partner Flora Enchinton told CNN affiliate KVIA-TV. “It is sad. This was a man with dignity.”
The will signed by Hemsley on June 13, 2012, a month after he was diagnosed with cancer, named Enchinton as executor and left his entire estate to her, according to court papers.
Hemsley’s embalmed remains are kept in a refrigerator at San Jose Funeral Home in El Paso awaiting a court order allowing burial or with instructions on who should be given the body, funeral home employee Renny Dosier said Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the El Paso County Probate Judge Eduardo Gamboa declined to comment about the case.
Enchinton, who said she lived with Hemsley at his El Paso home for the past decade, told KVIA-TV that the dispute gives her a “very ugly feeling, very desperate feeling that I feel inside.”
“The emotional thing is you wake up thinking he’s still frozen out there,” she said.
Contrary to what Enchinton said, Hemsley’s body is “embalmed under refrigeration,” not frozen, Dosier said.
The man who claims to be Hemsley brother is asking for custody of his remains and possessions.
“I have never heard of a so-called brother named of Richard Thornton in the 20 years I have known Sherman,” Enchinton said. “This is not what Sherman would have wanted.”
“Sherman left very worried about me, about me staying alone, what was going to happen to me, being alone if he was gone. That’s what worried him the most. I guess maybe he sensed what was going to happen. It just gives me these emotions and feelings (that) all of a sudden there’s these people that have never known anything about our life, about who we are, about what we’re all about, about what we endured,” Enchinton said about the validity of her role in Hemsley’s life being questioned.
Hemsley played George Jefferson, a wisecracking owner of a dry cleaning business, on “All in the Family” from 1973 until 1975, when the spinoff “The Jeffersons” began an 11-season run on CBS.
Hemsley also played Deacon Ernest Frye in the sitcom “Amen.”