Her Tv Family Is More Loyal Than Royal, but Isabel Sanford Is a Queen on 'the Jeffersons'
The upwardly mobile black family of CBS' The Jeffersons owns a successful dry-cleaning business that allows them to live in a swank Manhattan high rise. But Isabel Sanford, 60ish, who plays the TV mother, "Weezy" Jefferson, did it backward. First she became a success and moved into a $200,000 L.A. condo—and then she bought a dry cleaners. But as the irrepressible mama of one of TV's longest-running hits might suggest, it doesn't matter whether she did it backward, frontward or sideways, honey. What counts is that after decades of frustrating struggle, Sanford has made it. Even her new L.A. dry-cleaning shop, known as Weezy's and run by her son, is a success.
Only in recent years, to be sure, has TV been ready for a show like hers. The Jeffersons, after all, features an interracial married couple upstairs, portrays a black family as more successful than most whites and deals comically with the problems of bigotry and status-seeking. A spin-off from Norman Lear's All in the Family, which Isabel calls "the funniest thing ever on TV once you got used to Archie calling blacks 'jungle bunnies,' " The Jeffersons was a hit its first year and has ridden out changing time slots to return to the Top 10 in its sixth season.
"As a little girl I used to dream about people applauding for me," says Isabel, who picks up a weekly paycheck of some $15,000 along with the ovation (the show is taped before a studio audience). "Sometimes when I pass people they'll whisper, 'Isn't she from Good Times?' I'll turn around and say, 'It's not Good Times, it's The Jeffersons That shocks 'em. I love it when someone says, 'Are you Isabel Sanford?' It's nice to be recognized by your own name."
Surely few women have started life with less hope of standing out in the crowd. The only one of seven children to survive infancy, Isabel was raised by a Harlem foster family after her father, an ambulance driver, and her mother, a domestic, both died. Though she was "painfully shy," an encouraging grammar school teacher made her "dead set on becoming an actress." By high school she was playing even men's roles—including "a man in a Chinese opera"—thanks to her basso voice. At night she performed in "places like Cafe Society and Small's Paradise in Harlem. Langston Hughes, the author, loved my monologues."
Marriage to a house painter shortly after high school graduation resulted in three children in quick succession, Pamela, Eric and Sanford—"I felt like an assembly line"—and a separation after only a few years. "The children didn't miss him much, and I just let it go at that," she shrugs. "He was weak and I was an ambitious young woman." She proved it by acting at night in church groups while working as a $49-a-week keypunch operator at a welfare office.
In 1960 Isabel withdrew all her retirement money and put her family on a Greyhound headed west. In L.A., she worked as a keypuncher between infrequent acting roles until James Baldwin's 1965 play The Amen Corner took her to Broadway and critical acclaim. That led to her breakthrough as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's acerbic maid in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? She then became a semiregular on The Carol Burnett Show before Lear called in 1971.
Away from The Jeffersons set—where, she reports, "the chemistry is fantastic"—Sanford hosts occasional parties ("I always have someone in to cook") though she's watching her weight. She dieted down from 170 to "149¾" and is aiming for 125. "I have lots of friends, but I'm still looking for Mr. Right," she admits. She also works for the Kwanza Foundation (Swahili for "the beginning"), an organization of black actresses that helps poor families at Christmas. These days, as Isabel sits back in her newly designer-decorated two-bedroom condo near Rodeo Drive (which she cruises in a silver Cadillac Seville), she has but one complaint: "Why did it happen so late in life?"
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