Lynn Hamilton AKA Donna in ‘Sanford & Son’ Married a Famous Playwright & Was Widowed in 2014

Actress Lynn Hamilton is unforgettable for her character as Donna Harris in the 1970 TV series “Sanford and Son.” Besides her illustrious acting career, she is known for marrying a renowned playwright who passed away eight years ago.

“Sanford and Son” star Lynn Hamilton used to be one of the most famous actresses in Hollywood. Now 91 years old, the veteran actress debuted her acting career in the 1959 film “Shadows” directed by John Cassavetes.

Hamilton is not the only famous member of her family. She was married to her equally famous late husband, renowned playwright Frank Jenkins, who also successfully cemented his rightful place in the industry.


Acting did not fall on Hamilton’s lap. Back in Bloom High School, she could not bring herself up onstage as a drama club member. Years later, she stood on stage as school officials honored her with a Hall of Fame medallion. She said in a past interview:

“Kids can go there (a newly dedicated Learning Center-Library) and see (a plaque of) a Black girl who could not get an acting job there but rose in the world anyway.”

Speaking on why she did not have the time to feel bitter about the school taking a long time to recognize her, Hamilton said that back in the day, she was busy helping fellow white club members build the set and make costumes backstage.

Lynn Hamilton during her appearance at the ABC TV movie "A Dream for Christmas" in 1973. | Photo: Getty Images
Lynn Hamilton during her appearance at the ABC TV movie “A Dream for Christmas” in 1973. | Photo: Getty Images

Hamilton’s bittersweet return to her old school was quite memorable. Jenkins and Hamilton’s mother, Nancy, and sister, Sharon, witnessed the famous actress’s unforgettable induction ceremony.

After her time in new york, hamilton later joined the seattle repertory theater in washington.

Hamilton had her fair share of struggles on her way to stardom. “The Waltons” actress grew up when opportunities for a Black woman like her had been scarce, compared to her white counterparts. 

Lynn Hamilton during a scene on "The Illusion" on August 30, 1978. | Photo: Getty Images

Lynn Hamilton during a scene on “The Illusion” on August 30, 1978. | Photo: Getty Images


After leaving high school, Hamilton went on to study at Goodman Theater, a drama school based in Chicago, Illinois. Unfortunately, she was not able to do much during her time at the theater school.

Within four years of studying acting, she only went up on stage once – with a whiteface in front of an audience during her senior year. Afterward, she went to New York and earned a moderately successful career.

She became a member of four small-time Broadway plays and many off-Broadway productions and toured around the world. After her time in New York, Hamilton later joined the Seattle Repertory Theater in Washington.

Lynn Hamilton and co-star Hal Williams attend "The Waltons" 40th anniversary reunion on September 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Getty Images

Lynn Hamilton and co-star Hal Williams attend “The Waltons” 40th anniversary reunion on September 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Getty Images


While working with her theater group in Seattle, Hamilton met Jenkins, a poet, and a playwright. Their shared love for the arts led the pair to fall in love instantly and ultimately tie the knot. 

Although the exact date of their wedding is unknown, their union seems blissful. The creative duo moved to Los Angeles, where Hamilton successfully found a career in TV and movies. 

In 1970, she appeared in the comedy sitcom “Sanford and Son,” playing Donna Harris, the girlfriend of late comedian Redd Foxx’s character. Hamilton shared the spotlight with late actress LaWanda Page, who portrayed Aunt Esther.

Since Hamilton, who was a struggling actress at the time, and Jenkins’ incomes were insufficient to cover their daily expenses, the determined couple raised earthworms as their means of livelihood for additional income.

Just as Hamilton rose to prominence with her recurring roles in “Sanford and Son,” her husband’s career also blossomed. She and Jenkins went on a national 12-city college tour.

The tour, which became the talk of the town, was for Jenkin’s choreopoem “My World.” Proud of her husband’s momentous milestone, Hamilton went on to star in his play and portrayed 12 roles. 


Jenkins became one of the most respected artists in the Black Arts Movement in the late 1970s. The 1977 “I Didn’t Start Out To Be A Poet” was one of his critically acclaimed poetry collections.

He also wrote a moving piece for the 1982 Emmy award-winning PBS documentary “Voices of Our People, In Celebration of Black Poetry.” In addition to poetry, he also wrote notable plays. 

He created “Nobody” in 1997 and the controversial “Driving While Black in Beverly Hills” in 2001. The latter drew public criticisms as it explored racial injustices in a white neighborhood. 

Lynn Hamilton at The Waltons 40th Anniversary in 2012 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images, By bekahjan - CC BY 2.0

Lynn Hamilton at The Waltons 40th Anniversary in 2012 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images, By bekahjan – CC BY 2.0

Hamilton directed her husband’s provocative play. Her all-Black cast includes Felton Perry, Robert Blake Marshall, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Duane Shepard Sr., and Lillian Lehman, the ex-wife of actor John Amos.

Perry and Lehman played as couples Anthony and Celia; Marshall portrayed the couple’s son Paul. Brown played the radical-minded Zap while Shepard Sr. took the role of Henderson, the family’s lawyer.

The ground-breaking play, set in 1970, tells the story of Anthony, who drove a truck at the Beverly Hills with Paul and Zap. The police pulled the trio over for unknown reasons. 

After Anthony asked the police why he and his friends were stopped, the officer pointed a gun at him. His encounter with the police left his family feeling threatened by the situation.

Anthony and Celia sought a lawyer’s assistance to sweep the matter under the rug. However, Paul and Zap wanted to protest and seek assistance from the political group Black Panthers.

Lynn Hamilton at the Landmark Loew's on December 2, 2011 in Jersey City, New Jersey. | Photo: Getty Images

Lynn Hamilton at the Landmark Loew’s on December 2, 2011 in Jersey City, New Jersey. | Photo: Getty Images

The play served as Hamilton’s directorial debut. While the narrative of Jenkins’ play left many audiences confused, it helped create a venue to address issues surrounding the Black community. 

Like his play, Jenkins’ relationship with his wife was successful. He and Hamilton enjoyed their marriage for over 40 years together with their two beautiful children — Denise and Frank.


However, the couple’s time together came to an end after Jenkins passed away in 2014 at their Los Angeles home. Her husband was 89 years old. Their loved ones and close friends described Jenkins as a great man and friend.

“To Frank, thank you for all that you taught me about writing and listening,” a close friend wrote on his obituary. Jenkins may have died but his art lives on.

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