I was sad to hear about the passing of Sherman Hemsley earlier this week. The Jeffersons was a progressive, challenging show and Hemsley’s George Jefferson came off as a kind of black Archie Bunker, always at odds with his circumstances, never knowing when to keep his mouth shut. I preferred Good Times to The Jeffersons as a little kid, but The Jeffersons was funny and it had a pretty great theme song (although not as good as Good Times’).
All of that said, my jaw dropped when I read these revelations about Hemsley’s life off-camera, where he seems to have been a prog-rock aficionado, an inveterate dope smoker and a psychedelic scientist who may have had his own acid lab?
This came to me through the good people at Badass Digest:
He wasn’t just a fan of prog music – he actually cut an album with YES founder Jon Anderson. Called Festival of Dreams, it has never been released.
Hemsley was pretty evangelical about his prog obsessions. Besides dancing on Dinah! (if someone has that video, please share!), he wore a shirt for the band Nektar while doing press. And he pulled every string he could to hang out with Daevid Allen of the band Gong. Allen later gave an interview to Magnet Magazine where he talked about the bizarre experience of visiting the short TV star and discovering the guy had an acid lab in his basement (which means if you were taking acid in LA in the 70s it may well have been coming from George Jefferson himself:
“It was 1978 or 1979, and Sherman Hemsley kept ringing me up. I didn’t know him from a bar of soap because we didn’t have television in Spain (where I was living). He called me from Hollywood saying, ‘I’m one of your biggest fans and I’m going to fly you here and put flying teapots all up and down the Sunset Strip.’ I thought, ‘This guy is a lunatic.’ He kept it up so I said, ‘Listen, can you get us tickets to L.A. via Jamaica? I want to go there to make a reggae track and have a honeymoon with my new girlfriend.’ He said, ‘Sure! I’ll get you two tickets.’
I thought, ‘Well, even if he’s a nut case at least he’s coming up with the goodies.’ The tickets arrived and we had this great honeymoon in Jamaica. Then we caught the plane across to L.A. We had heard Sherman was a big star, but we didn’t know the details. Coming down the corridor from the plane, I see this black guy with a whole bunch of people running after him trying to get autographs. Anyway, we get into this stretch limousine with Sherman and immediately there’s a big joint being passed around. I say, ‘Sorry man, I don’t smoke.’ Sherman says, ‘You don’t smoke and you’re from Gong?’
Inside the front door of Sherman’s house was a sign saying, ‘Don’t answer the door because it might be the man.’ There were two Puerto Ricans that had a LSD laboratory in his basement, so they were really paranoid. They also had little crack/freebase depots on every floor. Then Sherman says, ‘Come on upstairs and I’ll show you the Flying Teapot room.’ Sherman was very sweet but was surrounded by these really crazy people.
We went up to the top floor and there was this big room with darkened windows and “Flying Teapot” is playing on a tape loop over and over again. There were also three really dumb-looking, very voluptuous Southern gals stoned and wobbling around naked. They were obviously there for the guys to play around with.
[My girlfriend] Maggie and I were really tired and went to our room to go to bed. The room had one mattress with an electric blanket and that was it. No bed covering, no pillow, nothing. The next day we came down and Sherman showed us a couple of [The Jeffersons] episodes.
One of our fans came and rescued us, but not before Sherman took us to see these Hollywood PR people. They said, ‘Well, Mr. Hemsley wants us to get the information we need in order to do these Flying Teapot billboards on Sunset Strip.’ I looked at them and thought they were the cheesiest, most nasty people that I had ever seen in my life and I gave them the runaround. I just wanted out of there. I liked Sherman a lot. He was a very personable, charming guy. I just had a lot of trouble with the people around him.”