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Obituaries

Isabel Sanford, 86; Won Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy

July 13, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Isabel Sanford, the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a comedy series for her co-starring role in "The Jeffersons," has died. She was 86.

Sanford died of natural causes Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Brad Lemack, her manager and publicist.

The deep-voiced Sanford played strong-willed and level-headed Louise "Weezie" Jefferson opposite TV husband Sherman Hemsley's irascible and quick-tempered George in the hit series, which ran on CBS from 1975 to 1985.

The role earned Sanford the Emmy in 1981, in addition to six other Emmy nods and five Golden Globe nominations.

"The Jeffersons" was the first series about an upscale African American couple in prime time and the first to feature an interracial couple (played by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker.)

The Norman Lear-produced series was a spin-off of "All in the Family," in which Sanford and Hemsley played Archie and Edith Bunker's neighbors in Queens before "movin' on up to the East Side" of Manhattan.

"What a darling, darling person; I was very fond of her," Jean Stapleton told The Times on Monday.

Stapleton called the neighborly relationship between the white Bunkers and the black Jeffersons a "breakthrough" in television.

The characters of Edith Bunker and Louise Jefferson, however, were in sharp contrast to the equally bigoted and opinionated George and Archie.

"The warmth of the friendship between those two women was very effective" in showing how people of different races can get along, Stapleton said. "Color was a barrier to Archie, but that's not what Edith saw."

Sanford, Stapleton recalled, "had a wonderful energy and she was very effective [in the role], and no wonder that it grew into her own show."

Not that Sanford, who previously had guest roles on series such as "Bewitched" and had appeared on "The Carol Burnett Show," was eager to leave "All in the Family."

"I was very comfortable having a steady job on a hit show, and who knew if 'The Jeffersons' would catch on?" she recalled years later.

The series was an immediate hit.

A stage veteran who appeared in Los Angeles and Broadway productions of James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," Sanford made her film debut in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," director Stanley Kramer's 1967 interracial love story starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier.

Sanford played Tillie, the white couple's loyal housekeeper who memorably speaks her mind to Poitier's successful doctor character about his plans to marry the couple's young daughter.

"The impact of Isabel Sanford's career on American theater, television and film will be a lasting one," Poitier said in a statement to The Times on Monday. "Having had the opportunity to work with her remains a treasured moment in my career."

Born in New York City on Aug. 29, 1917, Sanford first showed an interest in performing in elementary school and appeared in campus productions throughout her school years. Even then, she had her distinctively deep voice.

"She'd say that when she was in elementary school, the teacher could always tell who was whispering. There was no disguising whose voice it was," said Lemack.

After high school graduation, Sanford joined the American Negro Theater in Harlem, and later, the Star Players.

Sanford, who for a number of years worked as a keypunch operator at IBM during the day while acting at night, had various off-Broadway productions to her credit when she and her three children moved to Los Angeles on a bus in the early 1960s after her husband died.

Sanford, who recently did a voice-over as herself on an episode of "The Simpsons," received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January.

"If there's anything in life you consider worthwhile achieving -- go for it," she once said. "I was told many times to forget show business, I had nothing going for me. But I pursued it anyway. Voila!"

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.

Marla Gibbs, who played the Jeffersons' wisecracking maid, Florence, called Sanford "a true queen."

"We all gave allegiance to her," Gibbs said in a statement Monday. "She will always be a queen in our hearts."

Sanford is survived by her three children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Funeral services will be private; a public memorial service is pending.

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