Obits

The Art Of The Sitcom Grandparent: Remembering Clarice Taylor

I'm a couple of days late mentioning the passing of Clarice Taylor, who died on Monday at the age of 93, but indulge me.

Taylor played Anna Huxtable, Cliff's mother, on The Cosby Show, beginning in 1984. She and Earle Hyman, who played her husband Russell, put together quite possibly the fullest portrayal of grandparents that the half-hour sitcom has ever produced. (Clair's parents, played by jazz great Joe Williams and Ethel Ayler, showed up much less frequently but just as effectively.)

Certainly, some of the credit goes to the decision to write them as revered, rather than just daffy, and to emphasize over and over that they were not dreaded as comedy grandparents often are. They were not unwelcome nags, they were not out-of-touch bundles of fussing and fretting — they were fun, and seeing them was a treat, without any of the impatience and eye-rolling that older relatives are assumed to inspire, particularly in teenagers.

And, of course, for Russell and Anna's 49th anniversary, the family put together a musical salute that, even when television wasn't heavily analyzed episode by episode and assigned grades by a hundred different internet destinations, was an instant and widely discussed classic. (Before discussion forums and texting, that's what happened — you went to school, or to work, and everybody said, "DID YOU SEE THAT COSBY LAST NIGHT?" Hard to believe, I know.)

But for all that characters come from writers, Taylor and Hyman also brought Anna and Russell both easy good humor and tremendous dignity. They were open about struggles (especially during the civil rights movement), but they embraced their son and his family with playful affection. They were in the family, not imposed upon it. Of course, as playful as they were, as kind as they were, they were also revered and treated as treasures. (When young Theo got his ear pierced, it was his grandparents who were assumed to be the ultimate in potentially condemning authority, but they turned out to be understanding — it perfectly sums up their role, really.)

It wasn't Taylor's only role — she also appeared on Sesame Street, and in Clint Eastwood's Play Misty For Me, and in other roles. But, not for nothing, she may have been one of the most fully formed grandmothers that a half-hour comedy ever had.

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