Clarice Taylor—best known for playing the kindly grandmother Anna on The Cosby Show as well as the equally kindly grandmother Harriet on Sesame Street—has died of heart failure. She was 93.
Taylor had a long career that stretched across screen and stage, beginning with her repertory work in the New York theatre world in the late ’60s, where she helped to found the Negro Ensemble Company. Through her appearances there she landed some of her earliest film roles, beginning with 1969’s Change Of Mind and followed soon after with appearances in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon and Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me. In 1973, she starred in Five On The Black Hand Side—a family comedy pitched as an alternative to the action films that dominated black cinema at the time—in a role that she originated Off-Broadway. Another role she originated, that of Addaperle The Good Witch Of The North in the Broadway hit The Wiz, was reimagined as “Miss One” in the film version and was played by Thelma Carpenter.
After a memorable turn as “Cousin Emma” in an episode of Sanford And Son, Taylor found steady TV work first as Sesame Street’s Harriet, sassy grandmother to hip Hooper’s Store proprietor David, who pays the occasional visit to her city slicker grandson from her farm, usually followed by some light argument about how much nicer it is out in the country. Taylor would appear on the show periodically for nearly 14 years.
In 1985, Taylor landed the role of Anna, mother of Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable, and wife to former jazz musician Russell, played by Earle Hyman. One of Taylor’s most pivotal episodes (besides the famous “Night And Day” lip-sync performed for Russell and Anna’s anniversary, of course) was 1986’s “The March,” in which she and Hyman help Theo with his paper on the March on Washington. Taylor was nominated for an Emmy for her role later that year.
Although she didn’t win the Emmy, she did take the Obie the next year for one-woman show Moms, about comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Once The Cosby Show ended in ’92, Taylor’s career understandably slowed somewhat. After a small part in Sommersby and a guest appearance in Due South, Taylor’s last feature role was in Wayne Wang’s Smoke as Grandma Ethel—a fitting farewell for the woman who played grandmother to a generation of American kids for over a decade.