Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mother Pucker

Many the wife has had to deal with a mother-in-law who disapproved of the way their son was treated or how their house was kept (or not kept!), but few ever had it quite so bad as Louise Jefferson of The Jeffersons (1975-1985)! Thanks to Miss Zara Cully, who made an indelible impression as Olivia “Mother” Jefferson, Louise (as played by Isabel Sanford) endured remark after remark from her nemesis, but fortunately she sometimes got the chance to hit the ball back.

Zara Frances Cully was born on January 26th, 1892 in Worcester, Massachusetts. As one of ten children, she sought individuality through a concentration on speech and public performance. Graduating from the Worcester School of Speech and Music, she soon began to act in local theatre. Relocating to Jacksonville, Florida, she soon met the man who would become her husband.

At age twenty-two, she married James Brown Sr., who was four years older than she. The year after their marriage, she gave birth to a son, James Brown Jr., and two years later added a daughter Mary to their family. A female child was stillborn and not named, but the couple later had a second son named Emerson. Having a growing family did not keep Cully from involvement in the theatre. She did everything from producing, directing, writing and acting as well as providing private lessons of her own in a studio. She also taught drama at Edward Waters College, a longstanding school which was created to educate freed slaves.

Cully also traveled to New York, where her elocution was duly noted during a public performance of poetry. The often hostile conditions for those of her race in the South helped urge her and her husband to relocate in Hollywood, where she began to take part in productions at Ebony Showcase Theatre. This theatre was founded by Nick Stewart with money he'd accrued from prior acting roles and by playing “Lightnin'” on the controversial Amos & Andy TV series (1951-1953.) The venue featured integrated stories and casts with actors including John Amos and Isabel Sanford.

During the 1960s (particularly in the wake of the death of her husband of fifty-four years in 1968), Cully began to win small parts on popular TV series of the day including Run for Your Life with Ben Gazzara and Cowboy in Africa with Hugh O'Brian. By 1970, she was popping up in small feature film roles including The Liberation of L.B. Jones, for director William Wyler, and WUSA, which starred Paul Newman. 1971 brought Brother John, which starred Sidney Poitier. A brief stint on Days of Our Lives occurred this same year. Also in 1971, Cully appeared on Night Gallery, as one of the last people someone might expect to encounter on a trip down the Amazon!

Other TV roles included a 1972 episode of The Mod Squad and a role in the TV-movie A Dream for Christmas, which starred Hari Rhodes along with notable black actresses such as Beah Richards, Juanita Moore and Maidie Norman. 1974 brought the hooty Blaxploitation flick Sugar Hill. (Sugar Hill is the lead character's name!) Cully plays a Voodoo Queen who helps the title character (portrayed by Marki Bey) exact revenge on some gangsters who have killed her boyfriend.

Now eighty-two years of age, Cully was enlisted for a 1974 guest role on All in the Family (1971-1979.) Isabel Sanford had been recurrently appearing on the consciousness-raising sitcom as Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton's next-door neighbor Louise Jefferson. Mike Evans also popped up frequently as her son, Lionel. After a period during which he was unavailable to partake (due to appearing in two productions of the Broadway musical Purlie), Sherman Hemsley soon joined in as O'Connor's antagonist, George Jefferson, Louise's husband. (For eight episodes, Mel Stewart played George's brother Henry until Hemsley was free to play the role of George.)

The episode centered on Evans' engage- ment party, during which Sanford and Hemsley hosted the families of the bride and groom to be as well as their neighbors O'Connor and Stapleton. From her very first appearance, Cully demonstrated her dissatisfaction with her daughter-in-law Sanford, disparaging the food at the reception, yet any time her son Hemsley was around, butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

The storyline was racially charged thanks to the fact that the bride-to-be's parents consisted of a white father and a black mother, something that didn't sit well with most of the participants, but particularly infuriated Hemsley. At one heated point, Hemsley and O'Connor are arguing and O'Connor refers to Cully as Hemsley's “Mammy” which sets Cully off. This combination of the manipulating mother-in-law who could also go from zero-to-sixty when provoked would set the tone for Cully's characterization over the coming years. The characters of the mixed-race couple and their daughter would all be recast as The Jeffersons moved on (up) to their spin-off series, but no way was Cully going to be replaced!

The new cast was in place by the time of the 1975 All in the Family episode “The Jeffersons Move On Up” wherein Hemsley and Sanford went from their lower middle class neighborhood to a Manhattan high-rise. (With tearful Stapleton and Sanford bidding one another farewell in a memorably poignant TV moment.) Franklin Cover, Roxie Roker and Berlinda Tolbert were now in the roles of Evans' fiancee and her parents, who happen to live in the exact same deluxe apartment building! A zany Englishman played by Paul Benedict rounded out the cast of the spin-off, which was an instant success. (All in the Family was the #1 show in the nation for a fifth year, but The Jeffersons made it to #4 that first time out as well.)

The series centered on Hemsley (who was generally as racist-feeling towards any white characters on the show as his count- erpart O'Connor had been towards blacks on Family), adjusting to his new life as a wealthy and successful businessman after years of poverty. Sanford was the far more grounded and level-headed better half. Each episode contained repeated doorbell rings as Benedict, Cover, Roker or the doorman Ned Wertimer (hand always out for a tip!), among others, would drop in for one reason or another. The doorbell was practically another character (though few if any of The Jeffersons EVER used the sizable peephole that was built-in to the door!) Best of all, though, was when the doorbell rang and it was Cully on the other side of it.

Always decked out to the nines in colorful dresses (often made with chiffon!), scads of jewelry and often a fur coat or stole, she waited for either Hemsley or Sanford to relieve her of her coat before proceeding to make life hell for Sanford. With pursed lips, she'd put down her cooking, her housekeeping, her figure, her (in)ability to do crossword puzzles (though usually it was Hemsley who'd begun it incorrectly!) while kissing up to her beloved son.

Never, ever missing a chance to slight Sanford, she'd let a catty remark fly while batting her eyes as if she didn't realize she'd said anything amiss. Frequent favorite activities of hers were taking a nap or a bubble bath and, most memorably, requesting a Bloody Mary for its “vitamins.” Often, she'd complain about the strength of a drink, only to guzzle it down before anything could be done about it.

On rare occasions, Cully might side with Sanford, such as when she took after Hemsley's old friend Lou Gossett Jr. with an umbrella for getting too “handsy” with his old buddy's wife or if there was a situation with Evans in which he wasn't behaving properly. Nevertheless, by the next episode she'd be back to her hysterically derisive self.

One episode had her feigning a fall in the kitchen in order to be pampered and allowed to hold court in her son's apart- ment. She entertained several lady friends, one of which was Maidie Norman (of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962), relegated to a couple of lines, but who would later enjoy a larger role in Airport '77 (1977) as Olivia de Havilland's companion.

During the second season, Cully developed something of a romance with Cover's white uncle (who always referred to her as “Toots” - Mother Jefferson could rarely resist a compliment or careful, flirty attention from a man), much to the consternation of Hemsley. 

Cully was a key ingredient to the success of The Jeffersons and her “arrival” (in her mid-eighties!) was noted in both the mainstream as well as the black media. The “sweet” little old lady with the sidelong glances and tart remarks, blended with an occasional fiery temper or flight into fancy, won the hearts of TV viewers everywhere.

Things were, unfortunately, not to last indefinitely. After the first two seasons, Cully was felled by pneumonia along with a collapsed lung and had to miss a significant number of the third season's episodes. She did return, albeit weaker, thinner and at times in a wheelchair (though that didn't put a stop to her zesty remarks. At one point she complained of a sore behind and wished that she could have more padding, like the well-rounded Sanford!)

To the dismay of everyone, Cully found herself unable to continue for very long, though, and eventually was written out altogether. It was discovered that she had a large, cancerous mass in her lung (although she had never smoked – in fact, she also never drank – in her life!) She passed away in 1978 at age eighty-six.

Several of her male castmates served as Honorary Pall- bearers at her funeral, which was attended by all of her costars as well as by the series creator, TV legend Norman Lear. Among other speakers, a poem was read by her friend Juanita Moore (who you may recall from her role in Imitation of Life, 1959) and co-star Benedict spoke about her on behalf of her Jefferson costars.

The series continued on without her for many seasons to come. Marla Gibbs, as smart-aleck maid Florence, having been upgraded from recurring to regular cast member helped to keep things spicy in the aftermath of Cully's departure. After faltering during the 4th and 5th seasons, it reentered the Top 10 for several seasons after that (in 1981-1982 falling behind only Dallas and 60 Minutes as the nation's favorite show) until being unceremoniously cancelled prior to its twelfth season. (The cast had to find out about it in, in some cases, The National Enquirer, which was pretty rotten after all the revenue the series had generated for CBS.) By then the series had run longer and had more episodes than its parent show All in the Family.

There have been quite a few cranky, funny old ladies over the years, but Zara Cully, a petite 5' 2” firecracker, remains a favorite. Her comic timing and way with a glance and a line are still hysterical now, even if the show (which grew more and more conventional and broader with each season) is no longer as timely. (I might add, though, that in watching the first two seasons recently, we could still learn a thing or two - or three - about getting along together from it!)


Gingerguy said...

Boy do I remember her! lots of liver jokes when she was drinking. I loved this post, and finding out more about her. I watched this show for years as a kid and thought she was so funny (despite always being on the side of Isabel Sanford. I have seen "Sugar Hill" naturally, and would never have realized that was the same actress. Always great to hear about the wonderful Maidie Norman too. She is so good in "Baby Jane". Really interesting facts about a groundbreaking show that was funny.

Roberta Steve said...

Poseidon, thanks for reminding me about what a funny show The Jeffersons was. My sisters and I wouldn't miss it. Like Gingerguy, we were on Louise's side, but we couldn't resist Mother Jefferson. Like so many other people of our generation, my parents let us watch waaay too much TV. It seemed we never missed a show, special or TV movie. We even did our homework in front of the TV! How I graduated from high school I'll never know.

Anyway, my dad had little if any interest in TV, and usually read the newspaper or a book while we watched. He did have a sly sense of humor, though, and did appreciate certain characters from the shows we watched. Lou Grant and Ted Baxter. Mr. Carlin the patient in Bob Newhart's therapy group. And Mother Jefferson. When she came on screen, down went his paper or book, and we'd hear him laugh in his Lazy Boy recliner. She was comic gold. And he equally enjoyed Marla Gibbs's Florence too. I treasure the actors who brought these characters to life for the joy they brought my dad.

The CBS Saturday night line up was must see TV in our house: All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart's and Carol Burnett. My mom would make us ice cream sundaes to enjoy during Carol Burnett, then after the show we took a bath to be ready for church on Sunday morning.

Thanks for recognizing a wonderful character actress. She deserves to be remembered!

shle896 said...

Thank you so much for this piece. I have found myself watching a LOT of The Jeffersons reruns of late and she was simply awesome! I had no idea she had such a storied career and life. She reminds me of Joan Rivers who never slowed down and continued to work into her 80's. What a trail blazer.

F. Nomen said...

Mother Jefferson looked an awful lot like a black version of my own grandmother, herself not a pleasant woman. I mildly freaked out whenever she showed up. :::shudder:::

F. Nomen said...

I should have specified, I always mildly freaked out when Mother Jefferson showed up on screen. Although sometimes when my grandmother showed up...

HarpoSnarx said...

Poseidon, you always manage to give a long overlooked performer their just due. After reading Cully's story, her late stardom must have been real sweet to the old pro. Whenever Louise opened that door and there Mother Jefferson stood, a great show always managed to crackle a little bit more.

Poseidon3 said...

Hello, Gingerguy and welcome back! I cannot believe you've seen "Sugar Hill!" I had never even heard of it before investigating this post. I'm glad you enjoyed this post.

Roberta, I always enjoy your recollections. I think anyone who plays the "villain" and yet remains enjoyable and likable is something of a master at their craft. As you say, she was irresistible while also causing trouble. How fun that your dad would perk up and pay attention when she came on. I loved reading that! That line-up of TV shows was incredible, each one an enduring classic and yet they were different enough from one another to provide variety in storylines and personalities.

shle896, welcome and thanks for commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed this. I watched "The Jeffersons" as a kid and liked it a lot, but had gone for eons without seeing it at all. Then I found the first two seasons for $5.00 apiece (at Target!) and felt like revisiting them. It's been a lot of fun seeing the show develop and, of course, re-experiencing Miss Cully!

F. Nomen, Ha ha ha! That must have been a bit chilling... to see a close rendition of one of your own family pop up on screen. When I see Mother Jefferson pull her stunts, I'm reminded of my mother's mother-in-law from her second marriage to my step-dad. It's as if she used Cully's character as a template for getting under my mom's skin! LOL

HarpoSnarx, thank you so much! I'm glad you liked this. I do try... We live in a youth-obsessed time, but sometimes an old goat can come along and perk things up considerably. I always say that some day I want to play cranky, commandeering judges or society pillars. That curmudgeonly persona has always been in my theatrical wheelhouse even though I'm still under-50, so I probably have a sliver of a dream that someday I'll be able to get work as a senior citizen scene stealer on TV or in movies myself! Ha ha!

Ray said...

Terrific review of Ms. Cully's career and a great assessment of her presence on The Jeffersons! Thank you. (And it's "Worcester", not Worchester, MA...pronounced "Wusta"!

Poseidon3 said...

Ray, thanks. I'll fix it in the post.

angelman66 said...

Yayy, Poseidon, thank you for highlighting one of the biggest reasons I loved The Jeffersons...Zara Cully added a hint of tart vinegar to the zany fruit salad of Norman Lear characters...Zara's chemistry with Isabel Sanford was absolutely priceless, you could cut the tension between them with a knife,but Louise (almost) always held her tongue. So much fun.

As a kid, I never understood why Mother Jefferson just kind of disappeared, it was never mentioned that she was ill or had died...Marla Gibbs kind of took up the slack in her absence and Florence's role became a lot bigger.

We all love stars, but without these marvelous character actors, our favorite shows and films would lack depth, dimension and color. Thank you for highlighting the great Miss Zara!

Poseidon3 said...

Angelman, I'm glad you liked this, and Miss Cully! She seems to have really been a heretofore unexpressed (much, anyway!) part of so many of our childhoods when it came to TV viewing. Sanford, too, was an underrated talent for too long. I'm glad she won an Emmy (the first, I think, black woman to win Best Leading Actress in a Comedy Series?) You're right. Together they were priceless, though anything with George, Weezy and Mother Jefferson in any combination usually did. One thing I also find striking about Cully's work on "The Jeffersons" is that in all of the humor, be it skirting around booze, in-law disdain, selfishness, insults, WHATEVER -- there was never any vulgarity, crudeness, lewdness. She was still a lady and fall-down funny. I'm no prude (and I worship Betty White), but we did lose something when old lady humor became all about shocking the audience as much as humanly possible.

VanceMan said...

What a wonderful post! I'm delighted to see someone on the margins (in many ways) given the spotlight.

Poseidon3 said...

Hi Vanceman! I almost missed this comment, but fortunately didn't. I'm glad you liked this post. Thanks for reading!