Television holds a special place in the hearts of most seasoned individuals. There were only a handful of channels back then, but now there are countless. I remember the joy we felt when one of us appeared on television.
Norman Lear’s sitcoms were a favorite among us. There were several shows centered around urban Black families that Lear produced, including the widely popular, The Jeffersons. The series focused on a nouveau riche Manhattan couple, George and Louise “Weezie” Jefferson, who lived in a penthouse on the East side. The role of George was played by Sherman Hemsley, and Louise was portrayed by Isabel Sanford. Fun fact, Isabel was 21 years older than Sherman!
Isabel was born Eloise Gwendolyn Sanford in Harlem, New York on August 29, 1917 to Josephine and James Sanford. She was the youngest of seven children, and the only one to survive beyond infancy. As a result of her mother’s staunch religious beliefs, Isabel was forced to attend church every Sunday and sometimes on weeknights. As a teenager, she had always dreamed of becoming an actress, a profession that Josephine seriously frowned upon. So, Isabel would sneak out the house to perform at Harlem nightclubs. She also tried her luck at Amateur Night at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater.
Upon graduating high school, Isabel joined the American Negro Theater and The Star Players. At age 28, Isabel married William Edward “Sonny” Richmond a house painter; the marriage produced three children. The union was tumultuous and there were incidences of domestic violence. After 15 years of marital strife, Isabel decided to leave her husband. She withdrew her retirement funds, and hopped on a bus to Los Angeles with her children in tow. Richmond passed away in 1961 after being injured in a fight.
After relocating to Los Angeles, Isabel joined the national production of Here Today, after being asked to do so by actress Tallulah Bankhead. As the performer toured with the cast, she encountered discrimination. She was forced to sleep and dine in separate quarters from her castmates. Isabel made her Broadway debut in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner (’65). The role led to her being cast in the ‘67 classic and controversial film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I vividly remember Isabel’s role as Tillie Banks, the maid who blatantly disapproves of the interracial relationship between her white employer’s daughter and her Black fiancé.
Isabel’s role in Guess Who caught the attention of famed Hollywood producer Norman Lear, who eventually cast her as Louise Jefferson on the hit sitcom, All in the Family. She played Louise, the wife of arrogant, loudmouth, bigot, George Jefferson, played by Sherman Hemsley. The couple became such an immediate hit with the viewing audiences that Lear created the sitcom spin-off, The Jeffersons, for the pair. The actress earned five Golden Globe nominations and seven primetime Emmy Award nominations. And just until recently, Isabel was the only African American woman to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (’81).
After The Jeffersons ended in ‘85, Isabel began guest starring on various sitcoms, and making cameo appearances in films. In ‘87, she starred in a short-lived sitcom, Isabel’s Honeymoon Hotel, that was canceled after dismal ratings. In the 90s, Isabel, along with Hemsley, reprised their famous TV roles for the live stage show, The Real Live Jeffersons, that toured around the country. While audiences loved the nostalgia, the critics were not so kind.
Isabel would also make appearances with Hemsley on various film and TV projects. In addition, the duo appeared together in advertising campaigns for retailer Old Navy and Denny’s restaurants. Isabel ventured into voice-overs for characters on a few animated series. In 2004, Isabel’s final TV role was as herself on the long-running animated sitcom satire, The Simpsons.
In September 2003, Isabel underwent surgery for an artery in her neck and afterward, her health waned. In January of the following year, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her wonderful body of work. Isabel was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in July and just five days later, passed away at age 86. The death was attributed to natural causes.
You will forever live in our hearts, Weezie!