Nicholas Fonseca
July 23, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Isabel Sanford — who died at 86 of natural causes July 9 in L.A. — shared screen time with the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. But it was her 14-year run as TV’s Louise (”Weezy”) Jefferson that sustained her popularity.

The gravel-voiced NYC native — who’d acted since she was a child — got her big break near the age of 50. In 1965, she appeared in Broadway’s ”The Amen Corner,” and made her big-screen debut in 1967’s ”Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as the disapproving maid to Hepburn and Tracy’s nervous liberals. In 1971, producer Norman Lear cast her in CBS’ ”All in the Family,” on which she originated the role of Louise. Four years later, Sanford and on-screen husband Sherman Hemsley earned a spin-off.

”The Jeffersons” (1975-1985) was a breakthrough — as known for its catchy theme song (”Movin’ On Up”) as for its frank, funny take on a newly bourgeois black family. Viewers relished Louise’s slow-building tirades toward testy George, and so did Emmy voters, who in 1981 awarded Sanford the first (and so far only) lead-actress comedy statuette given to an African American.

In January, Sanford, who’d kept Weezy alive over the years in TV and movie guest spots and Old Navy commercials, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; a month later, she lent her voice to an episode of ”The Simpsons.” Says Lear, ”We have lost one of the most naturally funny performers and great human beings that I’ve known.”

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