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Isabel Sanford's Piece of the Pie

Published: 7/9/2012
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Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

Isabel Sanford moved on up and broke one of the glass ceilings of show business when, in 1981, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress. It was a pinnacle in a rich career… one that included critically acclaimed movie roles and viewer favorites on TV. Eight years after her death, we remember Isabel Sanford.

Sanford's career began with a small but powerful role in the award-winning 1967 drama Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Co-starring with Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Sanford played a maid – a role that, in another movie, might feel like a disappointing example of typecasting. But in this civil rights-era examination of prejudice and interracial relationships, Sanford's Tillie became much more than the stereotypical black maid of yore. She was a crucial piece of the movie's puzzle, examining the relationship from a very different viewpoint from that of her employers.

Small movie roles and TV guest appearances followed, but it was a recurring role on a groundbreaking TV classic that would lead to Sanford's greatest success. She wasn't a star of All in the Family, but as the Bunkers' next-door neighbor, Sanford delighted fans and impressed producers.

In fact, producers were so wowed by Sanford that they created a show for her and her equally notable TV husband, Sherman Hemsley. The Jeffersons was a smash hit, spending several of its 11 seasons as a top 10 show (it peaked at number three in 1981 and 1982). The Jeffersons received a number of Emmy nominations, but it was Sanford who would take home the statue, breaking that glass ceiling… and solidifying her place in TV history.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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