On this day in comedy on January 26, 1892 Actress, Zara Frances Cully was born in Worchester, Massachusetts.
Once known as the oldest performer on television, Zara Cully received fame late in her career mainly because she was militant. She was recognized as the world’s greatest elocutionist following a 1940 stage appearance in New York for Cully had put her formal training (the Worchester School of Speech and Music) to good use. She wrote, produced, directed and starred in many plays in Jacksonville, Florida and opened her own studio where she taught for over 15 years. Cully’s irreconcilable obstacle became her intolerance for the ways of the old South and she packed her bags and headed west to Hollywood.
In California Cully found the respect she craved. She was a regular member at the Ebony Showcase Theatre and appeared in numerous films including, The Learning Tree, Sugar Hill, The Liberation of L. B. Jones and The Great White Hope. On the small screen Cully was seen Playhouse 90, Run For Your Life, Cowboy in Africa, Name of the Game, Mod Squad, Night Gallery and All In The Family. It was on that latter program that Cully landed the role of her lifetime.
The Jeffersons was a spin-off of the Norman Lear hit, All in the Family. At the age of 82, Cully was introduced on an episode featuring her son, George (Sherman Hemsley), his wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) , who Cully’s character, “Mother Jefferson”, did not approve of and her grandson, Lionel (Mike Evans). From there the dynamics was set. Mother Jefferson would make visits to her successful son’s high rise apartment in Manhattan, argue with Louise, praise George and Lionel and generally pout about how she’s neglected. Cully pulled it off masterfully until the third season. The venerable performer had contracted pneumonia and had a collapsed lung. Regardless, that didn’t stop her from returning to the show after a 17 episode absence where she was embraced by cast and audience alike. However, that hug tragically ended on November 12, 1977 when Mother Jefferson made her last appearance on The Jeffersons. Three months later the woman who brought the adorable character to life passed away on February 28, 1978 in Los Angeles, California of lung cancer. She was 86 years old.
The NAACP awarded Zara Cully a posthumous special Image Award on June 9, 1978.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
See the clip: