Phylicia Rashad has two children, but she has acted as a mother to many more in a career defined by maternal roles.
It began 35 years ago with the introduction of Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” the paradigm-shifting sitcom that permanently imprinted Ms. Rashad on generations of viewers as a mother figure. From then on, her most memorable parts have formed a sort of mom-heavy family tree, though with much variation among the characters.
“Mothers are the same and yet they’re not. Know what I mean?” says the 70-year-old actress.
Ms. Rashad won a Tony Award in 2004 for her portrayal of Lena Younger, struggling on behalf of her children in “A Raisin in the Sun.” In the “Creed” movies, sequels to the “Rocky” saga, she tried to safeguard her boxer son. On TV, she was a power-hungry matriarch in “Empire,” scheming on behalf of her politician son. Even younger viewers know her as a matronly force, thanks to her cameo in the music video for Drake’s “In My Feelings” (now with 181 million YouTube views). From a balcony, she shooed the rapper away from her house and her daughter.
Ms. Rashad’s latest fictional mom is in the hit TV series “This Is Us,” an NBC drama that dives deeply into parent and sibling relationships. She appears in one episode, airing Tuesday. She plays an educator who clashes with her daughter (played by Susan Kelechi Watson).
Motherhood was just one factor in understanding the character. “Humanity,” Ms. Rashad says, is more important to doing her job. “What does this person want, in this moment and beyond? These are honest questions that you ask yourself in developing any role.”
Ms. Rashad, who was raised in Houston and studied fine arts at Howard University in Washington, D.C., played some mothers in her theater work before “The Cosby Show” premiered in 1984. She says she had an advantage in such roles after giving birth to her first child, a son, in 1973.
From that point, she recalls, “I could look at actresses portraying mothers and I could see who was a mother and who wasn’t. It had nothing to do with their talent. There was a sense.”
Ms. Rashad, right, on opening Night of ‘A Raisin In The Sun’ on Broadway in 2004. Photo: Getty Images
During her audition for the role of Clair Huxtable, she was startled by one scene’s resemblance to a real situation from her own life.
“When I read the script, I said, ‘Who’s been hiding in my closet!’ The scene was Theo [Malcolm-Jamal Warner] not having done his homework properly, and his room was a mess, and Clair was exasperated. And I was having that same discussion with my son, before I got that script.”
She recalls modeling Clair’s character on two women she admired: a former neighbor who became a state supreme court judge, and a family friend who worked with disabled people.
“They were both given to service, they loved music, and loved to dance and laugh. Both loved their husbands and adored their children, and were fierce about it,” she says.
As a mother of five, Clair Huxtable joined a long line of sitcom moms, but the character broke ground as an African-American lawyer and feminist. She was stern, but also intuitive and sexy, with a hard look as familiar as her peals of laughter.
“My best friend came to a taping and said, ‘Phylicia, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, taking these people’s money. You’re just up there being yourself,’” she says.
Ms. Rashad, left, and Raven-Symoné in a scene from ‘The Cosby Show.’ Photo: Everett Collection
When tens of millions of people were tuning in for each episode of “The Cosby Show,” Bill Cosby was sometimes referred to as “America’s Dad.” That standing was destroyed with his 2018 conviction for sexual assault, a crime for which he is serving up to 10 years in prison.
Ms. Rashad is in demand, with an as yet unrevealed role in an upcoming Tyler Perry project titled “A Fall From Grace” and another role as an instructor in a series for the Oprah Winfrey Network called “David Makes Man.”
None of her mother roles made her real-life role as a parent any simpler. “It’s easy when you’re scripted and the children are scripted too,” she says.
During the phone interview for this article, Ms. Rashad briefly paused to take a call from her son. He was checking to make sure she had arrived home safely after driving through a snow squall.
When she was carrying her second child, Ms. Rashad concealed her pregnancy on camera during tapings of “The Cosby Show.” Born in 1986, daughter Condola Rashad is an actress who stars on the Showtime drama “Billions.”
Ms. Rashad, left, with her daughter Condola Rashad, who is also an actress. Photo: Getty Images
Her mother recalls, “When she was a little girl, my daughter would say, ‘Mommy, there’s always something about every character you play that stays with you and you bring home.”
Not so in the case of Violet Weston, the fire-breathing matriarch of “August: Osage County,” whom Ms. Rashad played on Broadway in 2009. (“Violet did not get past the edge of my dressing room. She was madness,” the actress says.)
Her other less-than-perfect stage moms include: Big Mama in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (a 2008 production directed by Ms. Rashad’s sister, Debbie Allen) and Medea, the character in the Greek tragedy who kills her own children.
In 2004, when Ms. Rashad portrayed a 285-year-old soothsayer in the Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” she heard a theory about the unifying theme of her acting career.
After one performance, Ms. Rashad recalls, her mother, Vivian Ayers, a poet and playwright, told her, “No matter who you’re playing, you’re always being me.”
Write to John Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org