|Sherman Hemsley sang Zat You, Santa Claus? by Louis Armstrong and other... (Times file photo)|
Television star Sherman Hemsley, who was part of a wave of African-American actors who made inroads on television in the 1970s, died Tuesday at his home in far East El Paso. He was 74.
Hemsley was best known for his exaggerated strut, wisecracks and boisterous attitude while playing the character George Jefferson on the popular sitcom "The Jeffersons" (1975-1985).
Neighbors said the Hemsley they knew was a regular guy who would wave hello and goodbye and who would walk to a nearby Albertsons grocery store because he didn't drive.
"I got a call from one of his staff members. It's very tragic, sad news. I lost a good friend and El Paso lost a good resident," said U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte, who befriended Hemsley when Almonte was with the El Paso Police Department.
"He was a great person," Almonte said. "He loved El Paso. He was living here full time. El Paso was his home."had lived in El Paso off and on for more than 10 years before moving to the city full time. Hemsley, who was involved in local charitable causes, said in a previous interview that he liked El Paso's "peacefulness" compared with Los Angeles.
For the past three to four years, Hemsley lived in a middle-class home with a Spanish-tile roof on Tom Ulozas Drive near George Dieter Drive. Neighbors said Hemsley lived alone.
Hemsley's death was first reported on the celebrity news website TMZ.com, which also said Hemsley's body was found by his nurse, who initially thought he was sleeping. Information on funeral services was not immediately available.
Neighbors reported seeing police at Hemsley's home at about 11 a.m. and seeing a body wheeled out.
"We found out it was Mr. Sherman," said Antonio Ceballos, 25, who lives across the street.
Police Department officials said Hemsley was found dead in his home. A ruling on the cause of death is pending an autopsy and no foul play is suspected, officials said.
A biography on the Internet Movie Database website stated Hemsley was born in Philadelphia in 1938. He served in the U.S. Air Force before joining the Negro Ensemble Company in New York.
In early 1970s, Hemsley was hired by Norman Lear for the role of Archie Bunker's neighbor George Jefferson in "All in the Family."
In 1975, the Jeffersons spun off to their own show when they moved on up to the East Side to a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Lear's shows touched on race relations, poverty and other social issues that had often gone unmentioned on TV.
After "The Jeffersons" ended, Hemsley played a deacon on the NBC sitcom "Amen" (1986-1991). He also had appearances on other TV shows.
"Being in show business is weird," Hemsley said while performing with the 62nd Army Show Band at an El Paso park in 2005.
"You never know what's going to make you popular. What made me popular? That stupid walk," Hemsley said before launching into a rendition of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way."
Dave Eller, 62, remembered the day he met the celebrity next door. "I called him 'George.' He said, 'It happens all the time,' " Eller recalled.
Gregory Kennebrew, 52, was surprised the first time he spotted the former TV star walking in his neighborhood.
"I was riding my motorcycle and I saw him walking down the street," Kennebrew said. "I made a U-turn and asked him for a photo. We started talking after that. I was very surprised, shocked because I saw him on 'Amen,' on the Archie Bunker show and, of course, 'The Jeffersons.' "
After that meeting years ago, Kennebrew said he would often chat with Hemsley while giving him rides in a vehicle to the supermarket.
"He was one of the top icons," Kennebrew said. "He made everybody laugh."