Stage and screen actor Ethel Ayler, an original cast member of August Wilson’s Fences, who was perhaps best-known for her recurring role as Carrie Hanks on The Cosby Show died November 18 at the age of 88.
Ayler began her professional career in musical theatre, making her Off-Broadway debut in the 1957 Langston Hughes musical Simply Heavenly. She made her Broadway debut later that year understudying Lena Horne in the starring role of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's musical Jamaica. She went on to star in the title role in City Center Light Opera’s Carmen Jones, and as Bess in Robert Breen’s international touring production of Porgy and Bess, seen in Russia, Italy, and Argentina.
She continued to work on Broadway, appearing in the brief, two-performance run of Warren Miller and Robert Rossen's 1960 play The Cool World, and later originated the role of Naii in the 1961 musical Kwamina. Her Broadway appearances also included Black Picture Show and The First Breeze of Summer. In 1987 Ayler was among the original Broadway cast of Wilson’s Fences, understudying Tony Award winner Mary Alice in the role of Rose. Her final Broadway appearance was as Addie in the 1997 revival of The Little Foxes, in which she co-starred with Stockard Channing and Frances Conroy.
Ayler was also a longtime member of the Negro Ensemble Company, starring alongside Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, and Louis Gossett Jr. in the Off-Broadway premiere of The Blacks: A Clown Show.
She is best remembered for her recurring role as Carrie Hanks, mother of Clair Huxtable on NBC’s The Cosby Show. Her film appearances also included as 9½ Weeks, The Bodyguard, and the TV shows Family Ties, Martin, Friends, Brooklyn South, Six Feet Under, and 7th Heaven.