Clarice Taylor, ‘Cosby Show’ grandmother, dies at 93

June 2, 2011

Clarice Taylor, 93, an actress best known for portraying the self-possessed Grandmother Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” died May 30 at her home in Englewood, N.J. She had congestive heart failure.

Bill Cosby said she was “perfect” as the mother of his character, Cliff Huxtable, on the NBC sitcom that aired from 1984 to 1992 — except she looked “young enough to play my sister.”

“She did stand-up comedy. She and I were not of the ‘theatuh’ per se, we are performers,” Cosby told the Los Angeles Times. “So whenever I’d say something to her about doing something, I just talked to her the way comedians talk.”

After appearing in the original Broadway production of “The Wiz” in the late 1970s, Ms. Taylor toured with the show and roomed with Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby’s wife on the TV series.

Ms. Taylor first auditioned to play Rashad’s mother but eventually was cast as Cosby’s.

“I put on a gray wig, a bandana over that, flat-heeled shoes and a long dress with no shape to it,” Ms. Taylor told the Associated Press in 1987. “Bill saw through my act. I read five lines, and he said, ‘If you’re going to go through all of this, you’ve got the part.’ ”

Ms. Taylor and Earle Hyman, who played her husband, received Emmy nominations in 1986 for their roles as Anna and Russell Huxtable.

Ms. Taylor was born in Buckingham County, Va., on Sept. 20, 1917, and grew up in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.

She started out acting with Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, and in the late 1960s she was one of the original members of the New York-based Negro Ensemble Company.

In movies, she played the ill-fated housekeeper Birdie in Clint Eastwood’s “Play Misty for Me” (1971) and starred in “Five on the Black Hand Side” (1973).

Her other long-running TV role was on “Sesame Street.” From the late 1970s to 1990, she played Harriet, who occasionally left her farm to visit her grandson David in the city.

Ms. Taylor was reminiscing about how she skipped school to watch African American comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when a white friend said he had never heard of the feisty humorist.

She recalled her indignant response in a 1988 interview with The Washington Post: “Now wait just a damn minute. I’m going to show all you white folks who Moms Mabley is.”

Ms. Taylor’s late 1980s one-woman show about Mabley, “Moms,” led to a national tour and a legal dispute over the provenance of the play.

The show was originally billed as “based on a concept by Clarice Taylor,” but it was written by Alice Childress, who successfully sued when Ms. Taylor produced another version of “Moms” that did not credit Childress.

“I really became obsessed with this play,” Ms. Taylor told The Post. “It was like Moms was pushing me from the grave, saying, ‘Keep my name alive.’ ”

— Los Angeles Times

Most Read Local