All About Isabel Sanford's 'Roller Coaster' Life Before Her Historic Emmy Win for “The Jeffersons” (Exclusive)

"She starved her distraction and fed her focus," says Sanford K. Sanford, whose late mother played Louise "Weezy" Jefferson on the long-running CBS sitcom

<p>CBS via Getty</p> Isabel Sanford as Louise "Weezy" Jefferson in a CBS promo shot.

CBS via Getty

Isabel Sanford as Louise "Weezy" Jefferson in a CBS promo shot.

Isabel Sanford personified royalty.

For 11 seasons on The Jeffersons, Sanford — who died in 2004 at age 86 — and costar Sherman Hemsley brought one of television's most celebrated couples, George and Louise "Weezy" Jefferson, to millions of homes every week. Her reign garnered two NAACP Image Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the trailblazing achievement of becoming the first Black actress to win an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series in 1981 (a distinction she held, solely, for 43 years until Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson won the same prize in 2024).

"We all respected Isabel," Ernest Harden Jr., who appeared as Marcus Henderson on The Jeffersons, tells PEOPLE. "She was the consummate artist. Before every show, they would introduce her and the cast would all bow. She was the queen of the show."

Related: The Black Shows That Revolutionized TV, from 'Julia' and 'The Jeffersons' to 'Empire'

<p>CBS via Getty </p> Sanford with (from left) Zara Cully, Mike Evans and Sherman Hemsley on 'The Jeffersons.'

CBS via Getty

Sanford with (from left) Zara Cully, Mike Evans and Sherman Hemsley on 'The Jeffersons.'

As a young girl coming of age in the Bronx during the 1920s, Sanford had a premonition about her life on stage.

"I could see myself getting standing ovations," she recalled. Her innate talent blossomed at the Apollo Theater's "Amateur Night," followed by her work in Off Broadway shows with the Star Players, and her role opposite Harry Belafonte in American Negro Theatre's 1946 production of On Striver's Row.

A single mother of three, Sanford relocated to Los Angeles in 1960. She replaced both Maidie Norman and Virginia Capers in Purlie Victorious, toured with Tallulah Bankhead in Here Today and starred in James Baldwin's The Amen Corner, which Nat "King" Cole shepherded to Broadway. The New York Times noted how her "sanctimonious battle-axe of a mischief-making church elder is hard to resist as a comic performance."

<p>Columbia Pictures/Getty </p> Sanford with Sidney Poitier in 1967's 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.'

Columbia Pictures/Getty

Sanford with Sidney Poitier in 1967's 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.'

Sanford's role in The Amen Corner inspired director Stanley Kramer to cast her in 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Her scene-stealing performance as Tillie the housekeeper reunited her with Sidney Poitier, whom she'd known from New York, and yielded a regular guest spot on The Carol Burnett Show, plus additional films like The Comic (1969), Up the Sandbox (1972) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972).

"It was like a roller coaster, but she hung in there," says her son Sanford K. Sanford, who recently published the book Her Fans Call Her Weezy But I Call Her Mom, about his late mother's life and career. "She starved her distraction and fed her focus, and kept it going."

That kind of focus led to Sanford's audition with producer Norman Lear for the role of "Mrs. Jefferson" on All in the Family. "She wasn't off the first page in the audition before I knew she was perfect for the part," recalled Lear, the force behind an empire of groundbreaking sitcoms that included Maude, Good Times and Sanford & Son. Viewers first glimpsed Sanford in the first season's 1971 episode "Lionel Moves Into the Neighborhood," and she made more than two dozen appearances on All in the Family as it became television's top-rated program for five consecutive years.

Related: Lenny Kravitz Rewatches The Jeffersons When He Misses Late Mom Roxie Roker (Exclusive)

<p>Courtesy Everett Collection</p> Sanford with Jean Stapleton and Carol O'Connor on 'All in the Family.'

Courtesy Everett Collection

Sanford with Jean Stapleton and Carol O'Connor on 'All in the Family.'

The Jeffersons spun off from All in the Family in January 1975. With the success of George Jefferson's dry cleaning business, the couple relocated from Queens to a high-rise apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Their home welcomed a constellation of indelible characters, including their maid Florence (Marla Gibbs), their neighbor Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) and their son Lionel's in-laws Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker), who were one of the first interracial couples to appear as regulars on a U.S. sitcom.

"Louise Jefferson was the voice of reason on that show," says Harden. "George would have these schemes and ideas. Louise talked sense into him. Isabel was like that, too. She was the one that seemed to have a level head."

Related: The Jeffersons Star Marla Gibbs Wows on the Emmys Red Carpet at Age 92!

Sanford's stellar work on The Jeffersons would earn seven Emmy nominations and five Golden Globe nods. She ultimately won the Emmy in September 1981 for her performance in the season 7 episode "And the Doorknobs Shined Like Diamonds."

Young actors received a master class in comic timing from Sanford. "Sherman and I had a real dramatic scene with Isabel," Harden notes about the season 4 episode "George's Help," which introduced his character. "It was really powerful, yet they mixed it with comedy. George said to Marcus, 'When I was your age, I was a lot like you,' and the next thing you know, Louise says, 'only smaller!'"

Despite the show's popularity, CBS canceled The Jeffersons in 1985 without a proper series finale. Sanford brought her undeniable chemistry with Hemsley to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, plus commercials for Old Navy and Denny's. They even won a TV Land Award for "Favorite Cantankerous Couple" in 2004. Sanford herself remained a beloved presence on television, including appearances on The Love Boat, Living Single, The Steve Harvey Show, plus the film Jackie's Back! starring Jenifer Lewis.

<p>Kevin Winter/Getty</p> Sanford receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004.

Kevin Winter/Getty

Sanford receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004.

Isabel Sanford died just seven months after receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. To this day, Sanford's son has a special ritual. "When I go to California, I put a rose on the sidewalk where her name is," he says. "We talk for a while and I leave that rose there."

And what would his mother say to newly crowned Emmy winner Quinta Brunson?

"I was feeling lonely here. Welcome to the party!" he says.

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