Ethel Ayler, Who Played Claire Huxtable’s Mother On ‘The Cosby Show,’ Dies At 88

The veteran actress-singer appeared in six episodes of the classic NBC comedy as Carrie Hanks.

Cosby Show actress Ethel Ayler
Carl Van Vechten / Wikimedia Commons

The veteran actress-singer appeared in six episodes of the classic NBC comedy as Carrie Hanks.

Ethel Ayler, the veteran Broadway star and TV actress, has passed away at age 88. Ayler’s family has announced she died on November 18 at her home in Loma Linda, Calif., according to People. The beloved actress’s cause of death was not given.

Ayler’s career spanned more than 50 years with dozens of stage, TV, and film roles, but her most prominent role was a recurring part on the 1980s hit, The Cosby Show. Ayler’s IMDB page reveals she appeared in six episodes of the NBC sitcom from 1984 to 1992 as Carrie Hanks, the wise mother of Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad). Joe Williams played Ayler’s husband, Al Hanks, on the classic comedy series. In real life, Ayler, who was was just seven years older than her TV son-in-law, Bill Cosby, said she named her Cosby Show character after her own grandmother.

Ayler’s first Cosby Show appearance was in the 1984 episode “One More Time,” but her most memorable appearance came in the 1986 episode “The March.” In this particular episode, Theo Huxtable’s ( Malcolm Jamal Warner) mediocre history grade prompted an informative family dinner discussion about the Civil Rights March in Washington D.C., a life-changing event that profoundly touched the lives of his parents and grandparents.

In 2001, Ethel Ayler was interviewed for “The Cosby Kids” episode of The E! True Hollywood Story, where she defended the depiction of the wealthy Huxtable family.

“There are a lot of affluent African Americans in this country,” Ayler said. “And one of the good things was that that show was saying that.”

Ethel Ayler was born in Alabama and attended Fisk University, where she majored in voice and learned to sing in French, Spanish, Italian and German.

The actress-singer started her entertainment career in theater, making her off-Broadway bow in Langston Hughes’ 1957 musical Simply Heavenly. Ayler soon moved on to her Broadway debut as Lena Horne’s understudy in the play Jamaica in 1957, per Deadline. Ethel Ayler’s other Broadway productions included The Cool World, Kwamina, Black Picture Show and The First Breeze of Summer, while her appearance in The Blacks: A Clown Show had her co-starring with three future Academy Award nominees: James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, and Louis Gossett, Jr. The multi-talented star’s last Broadway appearance was in the Tony-nominated production, The Little Foxes, in 1997.

Ethel Ayler’s movie resume included roles during her Cosby Show heyday in 9½ Weeks(1986), To Sleep With Anger (1990) and The Bodyguard(1992), as well as 1997’s Eve’s Bayou. In addition to The Cosby Show, Ayler’s other TV appearances included guest roles on Family Ties, Sister, Sister, Melrose Place, Friends, Six Feet Under and a 2006 episode of 7th Heaven, which was her last acting role.

You can see Ethel Ayler in a clip from The Cosby Show below.