Ethel Ayler, Actress in 'Eve's Bayou' and 'The Cosby Show,' Dies at 88

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Ethel Ayler (left) in 'Simply Heavenly' (1957)

She received a Spirit Award nomination for her performance in the Charles Burnett drama 'To Sleep With Anger.'

Ethel Ayler, the standout stage actress who appeared in Eve's Bayou and To Sleep With Anger and portrayed the mother of Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, has died. She was 88.

Ayler died Nov. 18 in Loma Linda, California, her family announced.

Ayler appeared in the original 1987-88 Broadway production of August Wilson's Fences, and then played Addie in a 1997 revival of The Little Foxes.

A longtime member of the Negro Ensemble Company, she starred in the 1960s in Jean Genet's long-running off-Broadway play The Blacks: A Clown Show in a cast that included Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge and Louis Gossett Jr.

Ayler portrayed Garn Mere, a believer in voodoo, in Kasi Lemmons' acclaimed Eve's Bayou (1997), and she sang "Stand by Me" in the Charles Burnett drama To Sleep With Anger (1990), starring Danny Glover. She received a Spirit Award nomination for her work in that film.

On NBC's The Cosby Show, Ayler, as Carrie Hanks, offered wisdom to Phylicia Rashad's Clair on six episodes that spanned the years 1984-92. (Joe Williams played Ayler's husband on the sitcom.) She named her character after her beloved grandmother.

Born Ethyl Spraggins Ayler on May 1, 1930, in Whistler, Alabama — a town outside Mobile — she attended Fisk University in Nashville, majoring in voice and learning to sing in French, Spanish, Italian and German.

She moved to Chicago in 1946 to pursue a singing career and got into acting when she won a role in a touring company of Porgy and Bess.

In 1957, Ayler made her off-Broadway debut by starring in the Langston Hughes musical Simply Heavenly, then served as Lena Horne's understudy on Broadway in Jamaica. She went on to work on other Broadway productions including The Cool WorldKwaminaBlack Picture Show and The First Breeze of Summer.

Her résumé also included the films 9½ Weeks (1986) and The Bodyguard (1992) and the TV shows Family TiesMartin, FriendsBrooklyn SouthSix Feet Under and 7th Heaven.