Isabel Sanford will always be known as Louise Jefferson, the woman who stood by and worked alongside her man (George) until they became rich only to have to keep reeling him in from going haywire for the rest of their married lives. Sanford created the role of Louise as a neighbor to Archie Bunker and a friend for Edith on "All in the Family" from 1971-75, then went with the spin-off series "The Jeffersons" from 1975-85. Throughout all those years, Sanford could say more with her eyes and with her impeccable comic timing than needed to be said with words.
Sanford's story is the kind that show biz folks love to hear because it gives the long-time struggling players hope. After schooling in New York, she joined the Star Players (later the American Negro Theatre) in the 30s, performing with them until World War II interceded and the theatre temporarily disbanded. After the war, Sanford had familial obligations that put her career on hold. But her husband's death put a fire back into Sanford's dream. With three children to support, she worked as a data processor by day and acted as she could in the evening and acquiring a life-long frugality about which even she now jokes.
Sanford made it to the Broadway stage in James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," and, in 1967 was given her film debut by producer-director Stanley Kramer in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" In it, Sanford was the ever-loyal housekeeper of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy who does not know what to make of this "Negro" doctor who wants to marry their daughter and gives him (Sidney Poitier) "what-fer" just to make sure he's on the level. While the role of the maid was in stark contrast to the supposed liberalism of Hepburn and Tracy in the film--as was its point--Sanford offered a grand performance in what might be the last of the great strong, humorless black domestics, a tradition, for better or worse, in American films and TV until the Civil Rights era.
Sanford remained in Hollywood after "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and appeared in the feature "Pendulum" (1969) as well as making appearances on "The Carol Burnett Show" from 1967-69, not as a guest star, but rather as a stock player in some skits. In one such parody, Sanford was "Beulah," the only non-white member of The King Family (a singing clan of the 60s). She also appeared on episodes of "Julia" as a woman who berated Diahann Carroll to make sure the widowed nurse wasn't turning her son Corey into an 'Oreo.' In 1971 came "All in the Family." Sanford's role was, at first, recurring, but as the producers could use her as a friend to Edith, it increased. "The Jeffersons" followed, with Sanford winning an Emmy in 1981 for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, the first African-American woman to win in that category in the history of the awards. In addition, she drewsix other Emmy nominiations and five Golden Globe nominations through the run of the show.
At the height of her "Jeffersons" popularity, Sanford made guest appearances on other shows and specials and appeared in the 1979 film "Love at First Bite" in what was essentially a cameo. Other film roles include playing the Harlem madam who carries a spittoon and takes a young Billie Holliday under her wing in "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) and appearing as Fred Williamson's mother in the 1996 comedy "Original Gangstas." In 1993, Sanford reunited with the original cast members of "The Jeffersons" for a stage version of the series, in which they re-created three popular episodes of the show. She and Hemsley also teamed for cameo appearances in the feature films "Jane Austen's Mafia!" and "Sprung," as well as appearing together in commercial campaigns in recent years for Old Navy and Denny's restaurants, among others.