Sherman Hemsley was probably a very interesting man, but we don't know anything about him. At least I don't. It would be nice to find something about the complexities of the actor who played George Jefferson; I simply remember his cackle. And of course there's the theme song. Who doesn't know the lyrics?
It never occured to me that the apartment of the Jeffersons could possibly be worth wanting. Where I come from, only the poorer people live in apartments. Wealthy people had houses with swimming pools. Where was George Jefferson's swimming pool? I grew up in Los Angeles, and it must be said that there were only four people in all of those proto-black television shows that could be called attractive. That would be
- Thelma Evans - Good Times (but who names their child Thelma?)
- Michael Evans - Good Times
- Dwayne Nelson - What's Happening! (but stupid and superstitious)
- Lamont Sanford - Sanford & Son
We all wanted Lamont to get together with Thelma and have their own TV show. Quite frankly, Lamont Sanford was the only full-grown man with reasonable emotions, intelligence and good looks. All the rest of them, as far as I was concerned, were charicatures of characters. They should have all been skits on the Flip Wilson show.
George Jefferson got Whitey.
There was only one other character, who came to become a stock character of the Seventies, who could get Whitey on a regular basis. That was the always loud, always angry black police sargeant. George Jefferson got Whitey in two doofus forms. One was the effete neighbor Tom, and the other was the bumbling doorman Bentley. The joke wore thin. The show wore on.
Geez, there's not much else to say is there? The rest is personal because I grew up at arms distance to black Hollywood and am not unfamiliar with both Canebridge or the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble, the twin powerhouses of black talent pumps into the maw of the Industry. There was also PASLA an acronym whose meaning I forget but whose people I remember every time I roll west up 54th Steet off Crenshaw. There were so many kids around my age just breaking barriers in the 70s on their way into mainstream music, TV and film that I almost got caught up in the stampede. But what Hollywood wanted was a corral of scruffy black moppets - cabbage patch kids, modern day Little Rascals.
Of course there were better and there were worse. I can't remember anyone saying anything bad about Sounder, or Brian's Song. But having been involved in the making of Julia and back stage for a bit at Gunsmoke, I knew the likelihood of something approaching the basic reality of my own family life was not bloody likely to get on the air, although I did get onto an episode of the Louis Lomax Show. Hmm.
What Sherman Hemsley must have known and suffered through in Hollywood certainly informed Robert Townsend. There was nothing approaching my demographic until his partners in crime made the scene, and no moment captured the attention of my slice of that until Bobby Brown's My Prerogative video. The energy and dynamism of that sweet spot of the New Jacks. Things were finally accurate enough to be called 'real'.
I never met a black entrepreneur like George Jefferson, but I knew of his counterparts in the Civil Service and political stomping grounds which were my father's domain. I saw scrappers in beige three piece suits who approached the smooth sophistication of the king of all proto-black television - Barney Miller's Ron Glass, and others who were frighteningly more like Idi Amin, grinning tyrannical satraps. George Jefferson in real life would have cursed up a hurricane. A short, unattractive one like Hemsley would have been an engineer or a doctor - but they got the insufferable ego right. Never underestimate the moxy of a black man who gets Whitey.
I suppose that I could get into an argument about what expectations anyone should have about the social significance of black Americans' first experiences and adventures in broadcast television. I'm content to say that it was what it was. I was much happier to see the likes of Max Robinson, Bryant Gumbel and Bernard Shaw, real men, not characters written for comedic effect.