Isabel Sanford was an American actress, best remembered for her role as Louise “Weezie” Jefferson on the long-running sitcom ‘The Jaffersons’. She became interested in acting at an early age and when she was in high school, she often sneaked out of home to perform at nightclubs and amateur theatres. Although circumstances forced her to take up odd jobs to get by, first as a cleaning woman and then as a key punch operator, she continued to pursue acting in her spare time. She finally debuted on stage at the age of 29, moved to Los Angeles at 43 and debuted on Broadway at 48. She did her first film at 50 and her first television appearance came at the age of 51. Finally, at the age of 54, she got her breakthrough role of Louise Jefferson on the TV show ‘All in the Family’, which she later reprised in its spinoff ‘The Jeffersons’.
Childhood & Early Years
Isabel Sanford was born as Eloise Gwendolyn Sanford on August 29, 1917 in Harlem, New York. Her father James Edward Sanford was a chauffeur and ambulance driver. Her mother Josephine nee Perry was a homemaker.
While born youngest of her parents’ seven children, she was the only one who survived infancy. In 1920, after her father abandoned the family, she moved with her mother to Bronx, where they lived mostly on welfare allowances.
Sanford’s acting talent was first spotted by her drama teacher Miss Buskin when she was in the fifth grade. Thereafter, she began to participate regularly in school plays and quickly developed her acting skills. Miss Buskin advised her to consider acting as her career.
For her high school education, she first attended Textile High School and then went to Evander Childs High School. While studying there, she often sneaked out of her home to perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on amateur nights.
Her mother, a religious woman, tried her best to dissuade Sanford from taking up acting, which she called ‘the road to degradation”. However, Sanford continued to nurture her dreams and began performing solo at local joints like Ed Small’s Paradise Club.
At the age of 19, she won the third place in the Apollo Theater amateur contest. But shortly after that, her financial constraints forced her to take up odd jobs, first as a cleaning woman and then as a key punch operator at IBM.
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Despite her unfavorable circumstances, Isabel Sanford never gave up her acting dreams and continued to pursue it at night. She joined Star Players sometime in her twenties and later moved to the American Negro Theater of Harlem, where in 1946, she made her stage debut in the production of ‘On Strivers Row’, playing a sassy maid.
Sanford worked in several Off-Broadway productions like ‘Shakespeare in Harlem’, ‘The Egg and I’, ‘Purlie Victorious’ etc. Finally, in 1960, she moved with her three children to Los Angeles, where she joined Tallulah Bankhead in her national tour with the production of ‘Here Today’.
In 1965, she made her Broadway debut in James Baldwin's ‘The Amen Corner’, appearing as Sister Moore in it. Her performance caught the attention of film director Stanley Kramer.
In 1967, she debuted in films with the role of Tillie Binks, a sharp-tongued maid in Stanley Kramer’s movie, ‘Guess Who's Coming to Dinner’. In it, she was credited as Isabel Sanford for the first time.
In 1968, she debuted on television, appearing as a sketch performer in several episodes of ‘The Carol Burnett Show'. Her later roles included playing Aunt Jenny in 'Bewitched' and Lillian in 'The Mod Squad'. In the same year, she also appeared as Sarah in the teen drama film ‘The Young Runaways’.
While she continued to appear both on small and big screens, she had to wait until 1971 for her big break. In that year, she was chosen to play the energetic Louise “Weezie” Mills Jefferson on the CBS sitcom, ‘All in the Family’. She appeared in 26 episodes of the show.
When her character Louise Mills Jefferson’s popularity began to grow, she was paired opposite Sherman Hemsley, who played her on-screen husband George Jefferson. Very soon, the pair became so popular that a spinoff was planned. In 1975, she again appeared in the role of Louise Mills Jefferson in the series ‘The Jeffersons’.
Concurrently with playing Louise Jefferson, Sanford continued to take up other roles. She appeared in seven films in 1972, one each in 1974, 1979 and 1981. During this period, she also guest starred in different television sitcoms and TV films. In 1984, she served as a narrator in children’s series ‘Reading Rainbow’.
After ‘The Jeffersons’ was cancelled in 1985, she was roped in to appear in several other TV shows and movies. Her last film was ‘Click Three Times’ (2000), in which she appeared as Dorothy. Her last television appearance was as Mrs. Jefferson in the ‘Mother’s Day’ episode of ‘Candid Camera’ (2004).
Sanford is best remembered for her starring role of Louise Jefferson on the CBS sitcom ‘The Jaffersons’. The show began to air in January 1975 and ran until July 1985, lasting 11 seasons and 253 episodes. In the mid-1990s, she reprised the role of Louise Jefferson for the stage show, ‘The Real Live Jeffersons’.
Family & Personal Life
In 1945, Isabel Sanford married house painter William Edmond Richmond. They had three children; Sanford Keith Richmond (later called Sanford K. Sanford), William Eric Richmond and Pamela Ruff. The couple separated in 1960 and shortly after that, her husband died.
On July 9, 2004, she died in Los Angeles from unspecified natural causes. Later, she was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
She has a star dedicated to her on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 7080 Hollywood Boulevard.