Isabel Sanford
Isabel's Story
Isabel Sanford

On July 9, 2004, one extended Los Angeles family lost a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother and a friend; and millions of fans around the world lost a favorite television star many referred to simply as "Weezy."

Isabel Sanford's life story is a remarkable one. Against all odds, she succeeded in raising her family as a single parent while pursuing her dream to have a career as an actor. By the time professional success came to her, the struggle to achieve that goal would have gotten the best of most other people in the same situation.

"I wasn't young, I wasn't pretty and I was a Black woman looking for success in a business where those attributes were certainly not in demand in the 1960's," she once said.

Isabel had been at work on her autobiography these past few years. She would sit with her friend and manager Brad Lemack and the two would talk. She would recall her life's journey and he would take notes. Together they have turned some of her life stories into a work-in-progress, yet unpublished, book in which Isabel reveals a lot about her self. One particular story says a lot about the type of person a young Isabel Sanford would grow to be.

Isabel recalled, "I was the only child born to Josephine Perry that survived. Mama had six other children before me and all had passed very quickly and very young, all succumbing to a combination of illness and disease and the lack of strength to fight off both. As for me, I was both strong and healthy, and, if you believed the rumors, I wasn't too bright.

Mama worked as a domestic. I was always at home, alone, after school. I was always looking for things to do and always was getting into some kind of trouble in the process.

We had a dining room in our house with one particular wall that called to me. For some stupid, unknown reason, one day, while I was home alone, I picked up a pencil and started writing on this perfectly clean wall.

Later that day, when Mama got home from work I marched right up to her and proudly, enthusiastically, said, "Mama, look what I did. I wrote on the wall!" "You did what?" Mama angrily replied.  "Did you say you wrote on the wall? Why did you do that?" I shrugged innocently and answered her, "I don't know."

I know Mama wanted to punish me for doing such a stupid thing, but I guess she was too tired from working all day and couldn't muster the strength to get into a whipping frame of mind, so instead she sternly warned me. "Don't you ever do that again, Isabel. Don't you ever write on that wall again. Do you understand me? "I nodded as if I understood.  "Yes, ma'am."

The very next day I came right home after school, as usual. There I was, home alone, as usual, looking for something to do, as usual.

Don't ask me why, but I got up from where I was drawing on a pad of some sort, took one of my pencils and went right over to where I had written on the dining room wall just the day before and added a dot in the center of my creation that was still on display. I remember feeling very proud of my deed of creativity and defiance.

The Jeffersons The Jeffersons

Later that afternoon when Mama got home from work, I ran right up to her as she came through the front door and proudly, enthusiastically, defiantly, once again said, "Mama, guess what I did?! I wrote on the wall!"  Mama, perhaps thinking I was joking, responded, "You did what?"

Without hesitation, I proclaimed again, "I wrote on the wall!" "You did?" Mama replied, "Where did you write on the wall, show me?" I led her right to the scene of the crime. "Here," I pointed.  "Here's where I wrote on the wall!"

Mama was furious, and she had every right to be. "I thought I told you yesterday not to ever write on the wall again," she yelled, "Why did you do that, why did you do that?!"

I shrugged and stupidly responded, "I don't know."

I guess my reply came along with one of my now-famous facial expressions, which both aided the explanation and helped minimize the severity of what I had done.

Well, Mama, could barely hold back from laughing hysterically at the complete stupidity of my act and my explanation.

"Go get me the Cat-N-Iron-Tail," she ordered. I did and she hit me on the back of my leg for disobeying her, but her heart wasn't really in it. I guess it was a combination of her being too tired from working all day and her not believing the stupidity of her own child.

Sometime later, I overheard Mama talking to my uncle in Philadelphia on the telephone. She was telling him the story about my writing on the wall and what she did about it. My uncle, I later learned, said, "Sis Josephine, you can't hit that child. She's crazy. She doesn't know what she's doing!"

And with that, the dye was cast on my entire future. I was provided with an excuse for anything I did that might not have been exactly appropriate. They all thought I was crazy.


Isabel made her feature film debut in 1967 as Tillie the housekeeper in the now-classic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

She gained international recognition for her role as Louise Jefferson. From what was originally supposed to be a one-time appearance on "All in the Family," she had a home on that series for five seasons. Their landmark spin-off follows and when "The Jeffersons" left its original network run in 1985, it had garnered the status as the longest running comedy series at that time, a record breaking 11 seasons. To this day Isabel remains the only African-American woman to receive an Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy for her work on that series.

isabel receives her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Isabel receives her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Isabel was a generous, silent supporter of numerous charities. She never wanted any credit or any publicity for her philanthropy and regularly turned down invitations to be publicly recognized for her support. "Use the money to do the research, to do the work, to help people," she would say, "I don't give to be thanked. I give because I want to help."

Isabel loved dividing her free time between her homes in Los Angeles and Atlanta and a hideaway at the beach. Of all of the things to love about her Atlanta home, she was fondest of her own private elevator. It had a television in it so she would never miss a single minute of one of her favorites soap operas or comedies.

There are many Web sites you can visit to learn more about Isabel’s life and her work. You can watch video clips from an exclusive interview with at RerunIt.com where she talks about her childhood, her decision to move her family from New to Los Angeles to pursue her career, and how she landed the role of a lifetime on "All in the Family."

Other resources for information about Isabel's career and contributions are available at:

Archive of American Television
The Archive of American Television is a remarkable and important project of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Under the direction of executive producer Michael Rosen, the Archive has assembled a unique and celebrated collection of exclusive and extensive interviews with the pioneers of the industry. Isabel was proud to be included among them.

Emerson College
Isabel established a scholarship at this prestigious Boston-based performing arts and communication college after being invited to visit the school in 1985 when she gave the commencement address to that year’s graduating class. Read more about the Isabel Sanford Award.

Emerson College Los Angeles
A special scholarship was established in Isabel’s honor shortly after her death. The Isabel Sanford Los Angeles Scholarship was created to assist a currently enrolled Emersonian, preferably a minority student currently receiving financial aid, with the costs of attending the college’s acclaimed Los Angeles internship and academic program. Corporate contributors have included TV Land, Sony Pictures Television and Denny’s restaurants. You can read more about this unique program or learn more about the scholarship by visiting the Emerson College Los Angeles Website and/or by visiting our scholarship information and contribution page on our Website.

Internet Movie Database (IMDB)
You can take a look at the film and television credits of any actor, producer, director, writer or casting director at this well run and enormously interesting site frequented by industry professionals and fans alike. Isabel’s extensive list of acting credits is available for viewing on her IMDB page (Isabel Sanford on IMDB).

The Paley Center
The Paley Center, with locations in Los Angeles and New York, is a haven for fans and media researchers alike. The Museum houses the largest collection of television and radio broadcasts in the world that visitors can access and view on individual television monitors. You can watch Isabel being interviewed by Joan Rivers. You can watch Isabel at a television special celebrating women of comedy. Most importantly for fans of Isabel’s and “The Jeffersons,” you can watch the March 2002 reunion of the cast, producers and writers of the series at the 16th Annual William S. Paley Television Festival, in Los Angeles. It’s a must-see, fascinating look back at the ground-breaking series through the comments by and interactions between the players involved and the audience.