Hemsley joined the show in 1973, immediately catapulting himself from an obscure theater actor to a hit character on the enormously popular show. Two years later, "The Jeffersons" was spun off. Among the numerous "All in the Family" spin-offs ("Maude," ''Archie Bunker's Place, "704 Hauser"), "The Jeffersons" ran the longest.
The character, the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning stores, was devised, Hemsley said, as "pompous and feisty."
"All of it was really hard ... because — rude, I don't like to be that way," Hemsley said in a 2003 interview for the Archive of American Television. "But it was the character, I had to do it. I had to be true to the character. If I was to pull back something, then it just wouldn't work."
And he brought some of his hometown with him. "That dance I do (as George Jefferson), it's the Philly Slop," he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996.
After "The Jeffersons" was abruptly canceled, Hemsley starred in the sitcom "Amen" as a fiery Philadelphia church deacon, Ernest Frye. The show latest five years, running 1986 to 1991.
Jackee Harry, a longtime friend who made appearances on the show, said she and Hemsley had planned to tour in the musical "Ain't Misbehavin'." She said they had discussed it recently and that he seemed in good health and in good spirits.
"It's a sad, sad, sad day," she said from her home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
She recalled when the two of them were on a Manhattan sidewalk during the era of "The Jeffersons," and passers-by went wild.
"He got mauled and mugged," she laughed. "He said, 'What's all the screaming about?' He was so popular and he didn't even know it."
She described him as "a very private person unlike George Jefferson. But he was very kind and very sweet, and generous to a fault."
Hemsley frequently turned up as a guest on sitcoms like "Family Matters," ''The Hughleys" and even, in a voice role, "Family Guy." He twice reprised George Jefferson, appearing as his famous character on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and, in 2011, on "House of Payne."
Hemsley, whose films include 1979's "Love at First Bite," 1987's "Stewardess School" and 1987's "Ghost Fever," released an album, "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," in 1989.
In an interview with the Gloucester County Times in 2011, Hemsley said his show business career actually began in childhood.
"Making people laugh was automatic," he said. "I was in a play in elementary school and had to jump up and run away. I was nervous and tripped and fell down and everyone laughed. Their laughter made me relax, so I pretended it was part of the show."
"I always told my mother I wanted a job where I could have a lot of fun and have a lot of time off," Hemsley added. "She asked me where I was going to find that, and I said, 'I don't know, but it's out there.'"
Jake Coyle reported from New York City. AP Television Writers Lynn Elber and Frazier Moore in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Associated Press writer Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this report.
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