Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B7

Date: Tuesday, July 13, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Isabel Sanford, the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a comedy series for her co-starring role in ``The Jeffersons,'' has died. She was 86. Sanford died of natural causes Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Brad Lemack, her manager and publicist.

The deep-voiced Sanford played strong-willed and level-headed Louise ``Weezie'' Jefferson opposite TV husband Sherman Hemsley's irascible and quick-tempered George in the hit series, which ran on CBS from 1975 to 1985.

The role earned Sanford the Emmy in 1981, in addition to six other Emmy nods and five Golden Globe nominations.

``The Jeffersons'' was the first series about an upscale black couple in prime time and the first to feature an interracial couple (played by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker).

The Norman Lear-produced series was a spin-off of ``All in the Family'' in which Sanford and Hemsley played Archie and Edith Bunker's neighbors in Queens before, as the new show's theme song said, ``movin' on up'' to the East Side of Manhattan.

``What a darling, darling person; I was very fond of her,'' Jean Stapleton, who played Edith Bunker, told the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

Stapleton called the neighborly relationship between the white Bunkers and the black Jeffersons a ``breakthrough'' in television.

The characters of Edith Bunker and Louise Jefferson were in sharp contrast to the bigoted and opinionated George and Archie.

``The warmth of the friendship between those two women was very effective (in showing how people of different races can get along),'' Stapleton said. ``Color was a barrier to Archie, but that's not what Edith saw.''

Sanford, Stapleton recalled, ``had a wonderful energy and she was very effective (in the role), and no wonder that it grew into her own show.''

Not that Sanford, who previously had guest roles on series including ``Bewitched'' and had appeared on ``The Carol Burnett Show,'' was eager to leave ``All in the Family.''

``I was very comfortable having a steady job on a hit show, and who knew if `The Jeffersons' would catch on?'' she recalled years later.

A stage veteran who appeared in Los Angeles and Broadway productions of James Baldwin's ``The Amen Corner,'' Sanford made her film debut in ``Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,'' director Stanley Kramer's 1967 interracial love story starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier.

Sanford played Tillie, the white couple's loyal housekeeper who memorably speaks her mind to Poitier's successful doctor character about his plans to marry the couple's young daughter.

``The impact of Isabel Sanford's career on American theater, television and film will be a lasting one,'' Poitier said in a statement on Monday. ``Having had the opportunity to work with her remains a treasured moment in my career.''

Sanford, who recently did a voice-over as herself on ``The Simpsons,'' received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January.

She and Hemsley also teamed for cameo appearances in the feature films ``Jane Austen's Mafia!'' and ``Sprung,'' as well in commercial campaigns in recent years for Old Navy and Denny's restaurants.