Isabel Sanford: 1917-2004

updated 07/26/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/26/2004 01:00AM

To fans of The Jeffersons, Isabel Sanford will always be Weezie—the nickname blustery mogul George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) gave to his strong-willed wife, Louise, in the hit CBS sitcom. But to her cast-mates, Sanford, who died July 9 at 86, was affectionately known as the Queen. Says Hemsley: "We bowed to her.... She had that air." Like her TV persona, says longtime manager Brad Lemack, she "was independent and tough-minded"—qualities the husky-voiced, Harlem-born Sanford honed as a working mother of three after her estranged husband drowned in 1960. Moving to Hollywood from New York City, the stage actress made her film debut in 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Four years later All in the Family producer Norman Lear cast her as Archie Bunker's feisty neighbor Louise; The Jeffersons—the first series to feature an African-American family "movin' on up"—was spun off in 1975. After six years in the role, Sanford became the first black performer to win an Emmy for best sitcom actress. Yet after the show ended in '85, she landed only occasional TV-movie and film roles. On July 4, after falling ill at her L.A. home following neck surgery, she was hospitalized. Even then, "she was joking," says Lemack. A week later, he says, with daughter Pamela Ruff, a businesswoman, at her side, the spirited actress "slipped into the night"—leaving a legacy of laughter as well as courage.

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