Clarice Taylor, actress, 93; had role on 'Cosby Show'

Clarice Taylor portrayed vaudeville star Jackie “Moms’’ Mabley in 1987. Clarice Taylor portrayed vaudeville star Jackie “Moms’’ Mabley in 1987. (Bob Marshak/New York Times)
Associated Press / June 3, 2011

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NEW YORK — Clarice Taylor, the actress and comedian best known for playing grandmothers on “The Cosby Show’’ and “Sesame Street,’’ has died at the age of 93.

Ms. Taylor died of congestive heart failure Monday at her home in Englewood, N.J., said her son William.

During a career that spanned five decades, Ms. Taylor performed on radio and television, in film and on stage, including in the original Broadway cast of the musical “The Wiz.’’

Her films included the 1971 Clint Eastwood thriller “Play Misty for Me’’ and she had a recurring television role on “Sesame Street,’’ where she was grandmother to the character David.

Both Ms. Taylor and Earle Hyman, who played her husband on “The Cosby Show,’’ received Emmy nominations in 1986 for their roles as Anna and Russell Huxtable, parents of Bill Cosby’s character and grandparents of the Huxtable youngsters.

While touring with “The Wiz,’’ she roomed with Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby’s wife on the “The Cosby Show.’’ In a 1987 interview, she said that she decided to audition to play Rashad’s mother.

“I spent three hours making up my face and putting on my tight clothes,’’ Taylor said. “I didn’t want to look too old to be her mother.’’

She did not get the part.

Later, however, she was asked to audition for the part of Cosby’s mother. “I put on a gray wig, a bandana over that, flat-heeled shoes, and a long dress with no shape to it,’’ she told the AP. “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.’’’

In 1987, she played the pioneering black female comedian Jackie “Moms’’ Mabley in an original off-Broadway play, “Moms,’’ with future “Law & Order’’ regular S. Epatha Merkerson also in the cast. Ms. Taylor later toured as Mabley in a one-woman show.

She also played the role of Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, in the stage version of “The Wiz,’’ which opened in 1975.

Ms. Taylor began her acting career with Harlem’s American Negro Theatre and in the late 1960s was one of the original members of the New York-based Negro Ensemble Company.

Born in Buckingham County, Va., she grew up in Harlem, where she skipped school to watch the sassy comedian Moms Mabley perform at the Apollo Theater.

Ms. Taylor told the AP she portrayed Mabley in “Moms’’ because she was determined that the world not forget her.

“She was so special and so wonderful,’’ she said in the 1987 interview. “Here’s a black woman born in the last century who made a living at her craft. She never cleaned house or picked cotton. She went through a lot, but she stuck with it.’’

In addition to her son William, Ms. Taylor leaves another son, James; and four grandchildren.

Funeral details were pending.