Zara Cully: More than Mother Jefferson

This amounts to foreshadowing; my Jeffersons post is coming up in about a week, on Sherman Hemsley’s birthday. But when I stumbled across a reference to Zara Cully (1892-1978) the other day, and remembered her performances, I realized she rated her own post. As the judgmental, proper, unpleaseable Mother Jefferson she was easily the funniest person on the show. She was 82 when she first began playing the part, and had only been acting in film and television for ten years. But she’d spent a lifetime in preparation.

Cully’s parents moved to Worcester, Massachusetts circa 1890 from New Bern, North Carolina. The families of both had been Free People of Color for several generations prior to the Civil War. Zara was one of ten (possibly more) children; a couple of her brothers became big band musicians. After graduating from the Worcester School of Speech and Music, she moved to Jacksonville, Florida to take a position at Edward Waters College, a historically African American institution originally established to teach former slaves. She taught drama and elocution there and at her own private studio for about 15 years. She also married and had several children during this period. Frustrated with the racism she found in Florida, she moved with her family to Hollywood. After 1950 she performed regularly at Nick Stewart’s Ebony Showcase Theatre. She was already pushing 60 by that stage. A few years later she broke into TV, then film. You can see her in The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), WUSA (1970), The Great White Hope (1970), Brother John (1971), Sugar Hill (1974) and Darktown Strutters (1975), as well as on shows like Mod Squad and Night Gallery.

Appearances as George Jefferson’s mother on All in the Family led to her being cast on The Jeffersons when it was spun off in 1975. Her dignity, class, and bearing made a comical counterpoint to George’s boorishness, and her pretensions , histrionics and demands were a constant thorn in Louise’s side. Cully played the role until she passed away in 1978.