Defying her mother's wishes, African-American actress Isabel Sanford secretly worked as a nightclub performer in her teens. Upon winning 3rd prize in an Apollo Theatre amateur contest, Sanford could keep her new career a secret no longer. Married to a house painter who worked only on a seasonal basis, she held down a full-time job as a keypunch operator at the New York City department of Welfare, spending her evenings acting with such groups as Harlem Y and the American Negro Theatre. Seeking out better opportunities, Sanford packed her family into a bus and headed to Hollywood in the early 1960s. Her breakthrough film role was in Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; she played Tillie the cook, who heartily disapproved of the upcoming interracial marriage between Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier (the hardest part of this assignment was not mouthing the "controversial" dialogue but preparing dinner in a key scene; Sanford had never learned to cook!) On the strength of this film, Isabel Sanford was hired for several guest spots on The Carol Burnett Show, which led to her most famous characterization: Louise Jefferson, the acerbic but loving wife of "movin' on up" Sherman Hemsley, on the immensely popular sitcom The Jeffersons (1975-82).
- Performed in a nightclub as a teenager.
- Took third prize in an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater.
- Joined the Star Players (later known as the American Negro Theater), with whom she made her stage debut in On Striver's Row (1946).
- Made her silver-screen debut at age 50 in the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
- In 1981, became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.