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Isabel Sanford Biography - Selected works

television jeffersons actress black

1917-2004

Actress

Sanford, Isabel, photograph. EPA/Landov.

Best known for her portrayal of Louise Jefferson—Weezy—on the hit television situation comedy The Jeffersons, Isabel Sanford became the first black woman to win an Emmy award for best actress in a comedy series. Sanford's acting career included stage and film, as well as television stardom. In her early life as a young cleaning woman, then a housewife, and later a single mother holding down a day job, her chances of succeeding as an actress appeared nonexistent. Indeed Sanford's career did not take off until she was almost 50. She told Contemporary Theater, Film and Television in 2002: "If there's anything in life you consider worthwhile achieving—go for it. I was told many times to forget show business, I had nothing going for me. But I pursued it anyway."

Isabel Gwendolyn Sanford was born on August 29, 1917, in Harlem, New York, the daughter of James Edward and Josephine (Perry) Sanford. She was the last of the couple's seven children and the only one to survive infancy. Growing up poor in New York, Isabel became interested in the stage during elementary school. As a teen she sang in nightclubs against the wishes—and sometimes knowledge—of her mother. She performed at amateur nights at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and by high school she knew that she wanted to become an actress. When her mother died, however, Sanford took over her cleaning job to help support her father.

Although her path to stardom was slow and often interrupted, Sanford never lost her interest in acting and took advantages of opportunities as they arose. Sanford's training began in the 1930s when she joined the Star Players, which later became the American Negro Theater. However when performance venues closed during World War II, the theater group languished for a time. Sanford then focused her energies on her family—her husband William Edward Richmond and their three children. But even as a housewife, she kept her eye out for acting jobs. She made her professional stage debut with the American Negro Theater's production of On Stivers Row in 1946 and appeared in several other Off-Broadway productions.

When her estranged husband drowned in 1960, Sanford returned to acting to supplement her income as a data processor for IBM. She went on a national tour with Here Today and made her Broadway debut in the 1965 production of James Baldwin's The Amen Corner. There she came to the notice of film director Stanley Kramer. He cast her as the outspoken house-keeper Tillie in the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?—a classic interracial love story starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy.

Sanford moved her family to Los Angeles, California, to further her career. There she began appearing on television. Between 1967 and 1969 she performed on The Carol Burnett Show and made guest appearances on Julia, The Mod Squad, and Bewitched. Sanford continued to appear on stage and she toured the United States in Nobody Loves an Albatross and Funny Girl. She also appeared in various films including the 1972 story of singer Billy Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues.

In 1971 Sanford was cast as Louise Jefferson, the friend and neighbor of Edith Bunker, on the controversial hit sitcom All in the Family. Louise's blustery husband, George Jefferson, played by Sherman Hensley, nicknamed his wise-cracking, strong-willed wife Weezy. The couple proved so popular that in 1975 producer Norman Lear spun off The Jeffersons as its own series. George Jefferson's dry-cleaning establishment became a chain and the Jeffersons left Archie and Edith Bunker behind in their working-class Queens neighborhood. The newly-rich Jeffersons moved into a penthouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The series ran for 11 seasons before going into reruns. The Jeffersons was a fan favorite. In addition to her six Emmy nominations, Sanford was nominated three times for the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV-Series-Comedy/Musical.

The Jeffersons was considered groundbreaking television. It was the first series featuring a mostly-black cast since the infamous Amos 'n' Andy Show was cancelled in 1953. It was the first television series to feature an upwardly-mobile black American family and its theme song was "Movin' On Up." The Jeffersons was a socially relevant sitcom that dealt with racial issues and tensions. American TV's first prime-time interracial married couple appeared on The Jeffersons. Although the black community remained divided over the show's message, it appealed to large audiences, both black and white. Sanford especially enjoyed the show's continuing appeal. She loved getting mail from fans who saw The Jeffersons for the first time as reruns. Her longtime manager Brad Lemack told Hollywood Reporter in 2004: "She was just amazed and so pleased that the show had that kind of lasting power and entertainment because she loved to make people laugh."

Isabel Sanford continued to appear on stage and in films and on television until shortly before her death. In 1993 she reunited with other cast members for a live stage production, The Best of the Jeffersons, in which they reenacted some of the most popular television episodes. Between 1968 and 2004 Sanford made numerous guest appearances on television series and specials and was a popular guest panelist. In 2004 her voice was heard on an episode of The Simpsons.

In their later years Sanford and Sherman Hensley resurrected Louise and George Jefferson in television commercials for Denny's restaurants and other sponsors. Isabel Sanford also sold Old Navy clothing and Lipton Tea on television. She was noted for her philanthropy and established a scholarship for minority students at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. In January of 2004 Sanford received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hollywood Reporter quoted her as saying: "Here with stars in my eyes—something that I dreamed about when I was 9 years old."

At a Glance …

Born Isabel (Eloise?) Gwendolyn Sanford on August 29, 1917, in New York City; died on July 9, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA; married William Edward Richmond; children: Pamela Ruff, William Eric, and Sanford Keith Sanford.

Career: Actress, stage, 1946-1993; film, 1967-1999; television, 1967-2004.

Memberships: Kwanza Foundation, corresponding secretary, 1973.

Awards: "Y" Drama Guild, New York City YMCA, Trouper Award, 1965; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Image Award for Best Actress in Comedy Role, 1975; 20 Grand Salutes, Outstanding Actress, 1976; NAACP, TV Image Award for Best Actress, 1978; Emmy Award, Best Actress in a Comedy Series, 1981, for The Jeffersons; Hollywood Walk of Fame, star, 2004.

Sanford died of natural causes on July 9, 2004, in Los Angeles. She was 86. Her health had been failing during the previous months, following preventative surgery on an artery in her neck. In a tribute to Sanford in Entertainment Weekly at the end of 2004, Norman Lear—creator, writer, and director of All in the Family—wrote: "Isabel was a universal actress. She brought much more woman and mother to the character of Weezy than she did black woman or black mother. I don't think people thought of The Jeffersons as a 'black show.' They were simply tuning in to a funny show about a family they knew, and Isabel was the key to its appeal."

Selected works

Films

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? 1967.

The Young Runaways, 1968.

The Comic, 1969.

Pendulum, 1969.

The Red, White, and Black, 1970.

Hickey & Boggs, 1972.

Lady Sings the Blues, 1972.

The New Centurions, 1972.

Stand Up and Be Counted, 1972.

Up the Sandbox, 1972.

The Photographer, 1975.

Love at First Bite, 1979.

Desperate Moves, 1981.

Pucker Up and Bark Like a Dog, 1990.

South Beach, 1992.

Original Gangstas, 1996.

Sprung, 1997.

Click Three Times (short film), 1999.

Plays

On Stivers Row, 1946.

The Amen Corner, 1965.

And Mama Makes Three, 1977.

Night of 100 Stars, Radio City Music Hall, 1982.

The Subject Was Roses, 1988.

The Best of the Jeffersons, 1993.

Television

All in the Family, 1971-75.

The Great Man's Whiskers (television movie), 1972.

The Jeffersons, 1975-85.

Honeymoon Hotel, 1987.

A Pup Named Scooby-Do (voice), 1988.

Jackie's Back! (television movie), 1999.

Intimate Portrait: Isabel Sanford, 2003.

Sources

Books

"Isabel Sanford," Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Volume 43, Gale Group, 2002.

Periodicals

Entertainment Weekly, July 23, 2004, p. 14; December 31, 2004, p. 100.

Hollywood Reporter, July 13, 2004, pp. 4-5.

Jet, August 2, 2004, pp. 61-2.

Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2004.

People Weekly, July 26, 2004, p. 69.

Washington Post, July 13, 2004, p. B6.

—Margaret Alic

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