(b. 29 August 1917 in New York City; d. 9 July 2004 in Los Angeles, California), first black actress to earn an Emmy Award (1981) as the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, given for her role as Louise Jefferson in popular situation comedy The Jeffersons.
Sanford was born Eloise Gwendolyn Sanford, the daughter of James Edward Sanford, a chauffeur and ambulance driver, and Josephine (Perry) Sanford, a homemaker. She was the last of seven children and the only one of them to survive infancy. Sanford always felt lucky because she was the seventh child of a seventh child (her mother), but her life was anything but easy. Her father abandoned the family in 1920, which forced her mother to move from Harlem to the Bronx. Sanford’s mother supported the two of them on a welfare allowance supplemented by occasional employment as a housekeeper and domestic worker.
Sanford was interested in acting from the time she entered elementary school. When she reached the fifth grade at her public school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, her talents were discovered by Miss Buskin, the teacher in charge of dramatics and assembly programs. Buskin encouraged Sanford by casting her in school plays, where she developed her skills until her graduation from elementary school. Buskin also recommended that she seriously consider an acting career, and Sanford took her teacher’s suggestion to heart.
While Sanford was attending Textile High School and later Evander Childs High School, she used to sneak out to perform both monologues and pantomimes at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on amateur nights. At nineteen she won the theater’s amateur award and the admiration of the poet Langston Hughes for her monologues. Sanford’s mother did not approve of show business and discouraged her daughter from pursuing “the road to degradation.” The theater was a driving force in Sanford’s life, however, and she continued her career with solo performances at Ed Small’s Paradise Club, one of the most popular jazz clubs in Harlem. After graduating from high school, Sanford joined the renowned Star Players, later the American Negro Theater of Harlem. She made her stage debut in the company’s 1946 production of On Strivers’ Row, a comedy of manners about social climbing during the Harlem Renaissance.
Sanford married William Edward Richmond, a housepainter, in the 1940s and had three children in quick succession. She soon separated from her husband, however. To make ends meet she worked two jobs as a keypunch operator, one for the New York City Department of Welfare and the other for International Business Machines (IBM) Corp. At night she continued to pursue acting roles and appeared in several off-Broadway productions.
Although Sanford was not formally trained, she credited her acting abilities to a constant drive to perform whenever and wherever she could. When her friend, the director Edmund Cambridge, asked for help with a new theater group (later the Drama Guild) at the Harlem YMCA, Sanford performed with the group, receiving several acting roles on and off Broadway. She played in Shakespeare in Harlem and The Egg and I, both in 1959. She also had small parts in the stage productions of Ossie Davis’s social comedy Purlie Victorious (1959) and Jean Genet’s controversial play The Blacks (1961).
In 1960 Sanford withdrew money from her retirement fund, boarded a bus with her three children, left her husband in New York, and moved to Los Angeles, hoping to pursue a career in television or film. She requested a job transfer to IBM’s Los Angeles office as a keypunch operator. Her husband died by drowning later that year.
Sanford returned to acting in smaller roles while she continued to work for IBM. Her first major success came in 1965, when she was cast as Sister Moore in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, first staged on Broadway. Sanford kept the part when a second production of Baldwin’s play opened in Los Angeles. Stanley Kramer, a film director, saw Sanford in the Los Angeles production and offered her the role of Tillie, the outspoken housekeeper, in the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, an interracial love story starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier. Since Sanford earned only $600 for her performance in the film and money was still a major difficulty for her, she commuted to the studio by bus. When Hepburn heard about Sanford’s mode of transportation, she insisted that the studio cover the cost of travel by taxicab.
Sanford next appeared on television as an occasional skit performer on The Carol Burnett Show until 1971. Afterward she accepted the producer Norman Lear’s offer of a small part as Edith Bunker’s friend and neighbor in All in the Family, the popular show produced by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). As Sanford’s role as the feisty Louise (“Weezie”) Mills Jefferson grew, she was paired with Sherman Hemsley as her husband, George Jefferson. Sanford’s ability to portray a believably strong yet sympathetic character enhanced the show’s popularity and led to a spin-off series in 1975. The Jeffersons, which ran from 1975 to 1985, was the first television situation comedy to feature an upwardly mobile African American family. The show became one of the most successful spin-offs in television history. Sanford was nominated for an Emmy Award five times and won it in 1981, the first black actress to be so honored.
Sanford continued her involvement in film, theater, and television productions when The Jeffersons ended, making guest and cameo appearances throughout the 1990s. Syndication sustained the popularity of The Jeffersons, reuniting the cast briefly for a stage production of the show in 1993 and again for CBS’s seventy-fifth special anniversary show in 2003. Sanford was also cast with Hems-ley in a series of commercials for the Old Navy clothing stores in 1998 and for Denny’s restaurants in 2001.
Still active in her eighties, Sanford stood five feet, three inches tall and had an easily identifiable gravelly voice. She was independent and tough-minded, particularly when it came to rearing her children, and she felt rewarded by their respective successes. Recognized many times for her accomplishments as a performer, Sanford received the Trouper Award in 1965 from the YMCA Drama Guild in New York City as well as two Image Awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—for Best Actress in a Comedy Role in 1975 and Best Actress in Television in 1978. She was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award three times between 1983 and 1985.
Sanford worked with other successful black women in the entertainment field in supporting charitable organizations. She was a founder and corresponding secretary of the Kwanza Foundation, which was started in 1973 to raise funds for needy families during the Christmas holidays. The scope of the foundation grew to include a number of programs in the areas of health and education. Sanford endowed a scholarship for minority students at Emerson College in Boston, a school that specializes in educating students for careers in the performing arts and other fields related to communication. She was Emerson’s commencement speaker in 1985, the first year the scholarship was awarded. A second Isabel Sanford Scholarship, which enables minority students to study at Emerson’s Los Angeles campus, was established after the actress’s death in 2004.
Following preventive surgery on Sanford’s carotid artery in 2003, her health deteriorated rapidly. On 15 January 2004 she received a star for her work in television on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Hospitalized in early July at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, she died there on 9 July of natural causes at the age of eighty-six. She is buried in the Courts of Remembrance at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California. A memorial tribute was held in August at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in North Hollywood, California.
Although success came late in Sanford’s life—she was in her fifties when she was cast in All in the Family—her perseverance exemplified The Jeffersons’ catchy theme song “Movin’ On Up.” Her breakthrough as one of the first black female stars in situation comedies made her a significant role model for all who enjoyed her portrayal of the ever-resilient Weezie.
Information about Sanford and her career can be found in Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia (1989), and Redd Foxx, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor (1977). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 13 July 2004). Lifetime Network produced a biography of Sanford in its Intimate Portrait series. The biography was first aired on 3 February 2003.