For Hemsley, George Jefferson meant navigating his need to sustain his career and the needs of the character, with some respect for the actresses and actors, who before him, had no such options. Hemsley was a product of the famed Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), founded by playwright Douglas Turner Ward, actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone and was the training ground for generations of Black actresses and actors including Esther Rolle, John Amos and Janet DuBois, all of Lear’s Good Times, plus Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and contemporary actors and actresses like Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
The early generations of NEC were faced with many of the same challenges that Hemsley faced: how to cultivate the humanity of Black characters that were never intended—intentionally or unintentionally—to be fully-fledged humans by the writers and producers that created them. In the case of those folk who worked on television sitcoms, they were further limited by the conventions of the format, which rarely lent itself to depth and nuance.
In this latter instance, actors and actresses like Sherman Hemsley and his television wife Isabel Sanford, were held to standards that their White peers never had to deal with. Hemsley, for example, possessed a gift for physical comedy—that was part of what the strut was about—that was comparable to that of figures like Dick Van Dyke (particularly on The Dick Van Dyke Show), Larry Hagman, during his day on I Dream of Jeannie, John Ritter and Don Knotts, whose Three’s Company often shared the top-10 spot in the Nielsen’s with The Jeffersons.
Whereas the aforementioned actors were sometimes seen as geniuses of the style, who never had the burden of representing for their race or ethnic group, too often Black comedians of that like, Bert Williams, Lincoln Perry (“Step n’ Fetchit), Hemsley and Jaleel White, are simply reduced in the Black imagination as simply acting like “coons.” A Black actor would have never been able to get away with the “bugged eyes” that were Knotts’ specialty, dating back to his days as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.
Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, “The Genius of George Jefferson,” Ebony.com 7/27/12