Every one in a while, I learn something while doing my research that makes he really feel for the person I’m writing about. In this case, it’s that Isabel Sanford was the youngest of seven children—and the only one to survive infancy. Can you imagine the emotional burden in that? And then she wanted to be an actress, which her mother called “the road to degradation.” That is some of the most intense resistance we’ve seen so far, and a lot of people’s families resisted their chosen career. Just, you know, no one quite like that language.
Not only that, but it was the ’40s, and she was, not to put to fine a point on it, a black woman. The tenacity it must’ve taken for her to succeed is incredible. She acted and was a keypunch operator for IBM, and she acted and married a housepainter and had three children. She acted and separated from her husband, and what with one thing and another, she just kept acting. Tallulah Bankhead asked her to join the national production of Here Today. She made her Broadway debut in a James Baldwin play, The Amen Corner, produced by “Mrs. Nat King Cole.”
That sounds, honestly, like an amazing production. Sanford, yes—and Juanita Moore, and Beah Richards, and more than a few other people who would come to be known as black performers of note in the ’50s and ’60s. Including Whitman Mayo, who would go on to play Grady Sanford. And in a James Baldwin play. I wish I could’ve seen it. And it led to Sanford’s film debut as . . . a maid.
Okay, but to be fair, it’s the maid in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is actually a substantial role. She gets a good monologue, if nothing else. And she had a decent career following that, and eventually, yes, we get to the role you probably know her from—which as established two weeks ago I kind of don’t, as Louise Jefferson. She was the first black person to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. The second black actress to win a Primetime Emmy full stop. She became known in a way that I’m frankly curious what her mother thought of.
Honestly, you know, I’m more likely to write about people I’m not familiar with for February and June. Because I do celebrate both Black History Month and Pride. And there are plenty of people worth discussing—in the long run, essential to discuss—for both of those that I don’t know very well. Talking about black people on TV will often mean talking about shows I don’t have the greatest familiarity with. But in this case, what other people are unfamiliar with about this woman is at least as interesting as her television career.