When I heard yesterday that Sherman Hemsley had died at the age of 74, I was reminded of an afternoon several years ago in Ann Arbor spent staring over a beer at a man I believed to the iconic character actor. He was sitting a few seats away, drinking by himself. I think I was at Old Town, but I can’t remember for sure. I know that the sun was up, though, and that he was sitting by a window, just kind of staring forward. (I can still picture the light on his face.) I made a mental note to go home and see if I could figure out what he was doing in town, but I don’t think I ever did anything about it. (I figured he must be doing dinner theater somewhere nearby… maybe a revival of Love Letters with Isabel Sanford, or something) As I don’t have a photo of him, I’m assuming it happened before I got my first good cell phone, with would have put it over a half dozen years ago. As for why I didn’t approach him, even though he looked as though he would have been totally receptive to it, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to say that I was just nervous and shy, as I’m always nervous and shy, but I think the possibility that it might not have been him, may have also factored into my decision. I can’t recall exactly, but I imagine it may have crossed my mind that a story about seeing someone who could have been Hemsley across the room, was better than a story about me asking a short, balding, non-famous black man for his autograph. Whatever the reason, I didn’t say anything to him. I just sat there, staring. And, right now, I find myself regretting it.
With that, I’d like to share the following 1981 episode of The Jeffersons, entitled “Sorry, Wrong Meeting.” (It’s the episode in which George saves the life of a Klansman.)
Speaking of Hemsley, if that was him in Ann Arbor, and I had it to do all over again, I’d sit down and ask him to explain the appeal of his favorite psychedelic rock band, Gong.
The following story comes by way of Gong’s Daevid Allen. (Allen was also in the band Soft Machine.) The rest of the story can be found in Magnet magazine.
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…
Sadly, I don’t think any current sitcom stars are fans of my band.
Oh, and if you want to honor Hemsley’s memory today, how about listening to a few of his old All in the Family rants over a soundtrack of Gong’s Flying Teapot? And, if you really want to have a good time, how about watching him dance on Soul Train at the same time? I think he’d like that.