Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Mar 13th 2009 4:00PM by James Sullivan
Sherman Hemsley, the man who played feisty George Jefferson, is a hard-core aficionado of serious psychedelic rock.
Not only is ol' Sherm an unlikely prog rock fan -- he's an active participant. Hemsley has actually collaborated with Jon Anderson of Yes, and he once flew Gong's Daevid Allen (who had no idea who he was) from Europe to Hollywood. As a guest on 'The Mike Douglas Show' at the height of his TV fame, Hemsley danced to a recording of Gentle Giant's 'Proclamation' -- we kid you not -- then rhapsodized about his favorite music to an incredulous host.
Raised in South Philadelphia, Hemsley was a jazz keyboardist long before he got his acting break, on Broadway in 1970. 'All in the Family' creator Norman Lear discovered him there and quickly offered him the role of George Jefferson. The new George and "Weezy," his wife (played by Isabel Sanford), proved such popular characters that they had their own spinoff sitcom by 1975, famously "movin' on up" from Queens "to a deluxe apartment in the sky."
It was the late '70s when Hemsley invited Allen to Los Angeles, where he apparently planned to put billboards for the Australian guitarist's psychedelic rock band's old 'Flying Teapot' album up and down Sunset Strip. Music writer Mitch Myers once interviewed the bandleader about the episode. Living in Spain, Allen had never seen 'The Jeffersons.' To him, this guy who kept calling from L.A. was "a lunatic." Eventually, he accepted the invitation, on one condition: He wanted to fly through Jamaica, so he and his girlfriend could enjoy a honeymoon there. Hemsley didn't hesitate.
According to Allen, on the limo ride from the airport in L.A., Hemsley passed around a big joint. When Allen declined, the actor couldn't believe it. "You don't smoke, and you're from Gong?" How else could he possibly have come up with the crazy mythology -- green pixies with propellers on their heads -- of the band's so-called 'Radio Gnome Trilogy'?
At Hemsley's house, filled with furtive characters and not-so-furtive women, Allen was ushered into a dark room with a stereo playing an endless loop of 'Flying Teapot.' After sleeping in a room outfitted with just a mattress and an electric blanket, he couldn't wait to go. Hemsley, he reported, was "a very personable, charming guy. I just had a lot of trouble with the people around him."
As recently as a few years ago, Hemsley was trying to find financing for a proposed "funk-rock opera" with Yes' Anderson, with words by the singer, tunes by the actor. "The show would be a monster," Hemsley said, "but I can't get anyone to take it seriously, because they only see me as George Jefferson." If they only knew.