Sherman Hemsley & Jeffersons’ co-star, Isabel Sanford
Way back, in the mid-70s, I joined 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 weekly and 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. Having been startled, their facial expressions could be funny, often hysterical; on the other hand, many of the onlookers’ signs of disgust were alarming, frightening, and reminded us that we were two gay guys hugging in public. And one of us was black and the other white.
I came to adore Sherman. He was such a gentleman, such a gentle and kind 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. So as not to seem overly impressed with my work situation, 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 offer her a hug.
Mother took a short step back, lifted her chin just enough to make a statement, 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.