The stunning transformation of Phylicia Rashad

Phylicia Rashad, known for her unforgettable and totally iconic portrayal as Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show, is undoubtedly a Hollywood and television legend. While most people will never forget her long stint in the hugely popular show, the actress has also proven her dramatic acting chops with a series of highly successful and well-respected roles on stage, including her groundbreaking Tony Award-winning performance in A Raisin in the Sun in 2004 (via Britannica). In addition to acting, Rashad has also turned her focus to directing, and she planned to make her Broadway directing debut in 2020 (via The Hollywood Reporter).

Rashad is certainly a titan of the stage and screen, but many fans will be surprised to learn about how she became the actress and woman she is today. We’ve taken a look at Rashad’s biggest influences and turning points over the years. Here is the stunning transformation of Phylicia Rashad. Spoiler: She’s one of many ’90s sitcom moms who are unrecognizable today.

Phylicia Rashad's mother was a massive influence on her and her sister

Phylicia Rashad was born in Houston on June 19, 1948. She was the second of four children. Her father was a dentist, and her mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet (via Britannica). By all accounts, Vivian was a massive influence on Rashad and her siblings. As actress Debbie Allen, Rashad’s sister, explained at a tribute to her and Rashad, the girls didn’t have much privilege growing up. “My mother, Vivian Ayers, always made us believe that we were part of a universe that welcomed us and wanted our creativity and was waiting for us to do something good,” she said, as reported by Los Angeles Times. “And so we’ve been doing that forever.”

Phylicia Rashad has also spoken up about how her mother’s influence helped her to develop her creativity. Speaking on the Sway in the Morning radio show (via BSM), she explained that her mother never said no to any of their ideas. The children once created a makeshift skating rink on the floor using baby powder and wearing socks. Another time, Rashad used cornflakes on the floor as a burglar alarm. “She never chastised us for being creative,” Rashad summed up.

Phylicia Rashad and her siblings have always been in the arts thanks to their mother

Thanks to their mother’s influence, the four Ayers children were basically destined for careers in the arts. As Phylicia Rashad explained in an interview with the Archive of American Television, “We were always in the arts.” She recalled how their mother would gather them together when they were young to teach them about music notes and reading music using candy Easter eggs. Apparently, she was just 6 years old at the time, but she never forgot it. “That was my first lesson in fractions,” she said. As for their childhood artistic influences, Rashad cited shows The Mickey Mouse Club and The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as Sid Caesar.

Nevertheless, even though their mother made sure they were educated in the arts, Rashad did have a few memories of messing around in the mud and climbing trees with her siblings, too!

Phylicia Rashad felt like the "ugly duckling" in her family for a long time… until she found acting

According to her interview for the Archive of American Television, Phylicia Rashad decided to pursue a career as a performer when she was just 11. Apparently, her love of theater was born from her lack of self-confidence. She confessed that she always felt unattractive compared to the rest of her family. “I was the ugly duckling in this family of beautiful people, and I was very self-conscious about it,” she revealed.

As Rashad explained, she had been asked to read on stage at an event. Because she had never been on stage before, she was surprised by how bright the spotlight was. “I just talked to the light,” she recalled. Apparently, at the end of the evening, she overheard mothers saying to their daughters, “There she is, there’s the little girl who spoke so beautifully. Isn’t she beautiful?” As Rashad explained, she decided then and there to become an actress, so she could “play in the light and be beautiful all the time.”

Over time, Rashad learned that what had made her beautiful was her ability for “communication from the heart.”

Attending Howard University taught Phylicia Rashad about the discipline of acting

After finishing high school, Phylicia Rashad attended Howard University’s drama department. She explained to the Archive for American Television, “My father … said you’re going to go to Howard University.” He then showed her a magazine article about the school’s successful drama department. “So I went to Howard University,” she said.

As Rashad noted, the training and education she received at Howard taught her a lot about what she would need to do to become a really good actor. She explained that, in those days, Howard had an extensive fine arts department where she received full acting training. “We were plunged into the discipline from the first day,” she shared. She went on to explain that her instructors were pretty demanding of their time and energy. “We were in the drama department and we had work to do,” she said.

As Rashad said on the university’s Charter Day in 2009, a lot about Howard has stayed with her: “Howard University affords not only a structure but a foundation as well for the human being.” She went on to say that every student becomes part of an important living legacy.

Phylicia Rashad credits this for making her a great actor

In addition to her extensive drama training at Howard University, Phylicia Rashad also cites Siddha yoga as being an incredibly important part of her development as an actor. Speaking to The Harvard Crimson, she explained that when she left Howard University and moved to New York City, she initially struggled to break into the theater scene. “It was the first time I ever felt like I lacked something,” she confessed. “My mind was constantly moving outward because I felt as though I had to please others in order to get the job.”

Eventually, Rashad discovered that the practice of Siddha yoga could help her overcome these anxieties and refocus herself on her acting. “Truthfully speaking, my entire career and life is based on [Siddha yoga],” she said, explaining that it helped her to find peace and stillness in the mind. “My greatest moments on stage or before camera are times during which the mind isn’t thinking, but everything around me is still taking place.”

Phylicia Rashad was cast in The Cosby Show, which transformed her career

Phylicia Rashad may not have realized it at the time, but winning the role of Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show would transform her life forever. She explained for the Archive of American Television that Bill Cosby had been looking for someone who could speak Spanish. Luckily, Rashad knows Spanish, and she had a family in her building that was able to help her quickly refine her Spanish in time for the audition. Rashad explained that, even though her audition didn’t call for Spanish, she “wanted to be authentic.” And luckily, her hard work paid off, as she got into the final round of auditions.

In her third audition, Bill Cosby apparently tested her and challenged her to improvise some Spanish that she hadn’t learned in advance, which she did. But Rashad confessed that wasn’t the real reason she won the role. “I asked him years later, ‘Why did you cast me?'” Apparently, Cosby replied, “Because of that look in your eye.” And who could forget that one-of-a-kind Clair Huxtable stare!

How Phylicia Rashad feels about The Cosby Show

The Cosby Show ran for eight years, and Phylicia Rashad seemed to have had a wonderful time. As she explained at the ATX Television Festival in 2019 (via Variety), “We were [just] having fun.” She had no idea what a smash hit the show would ultimately become. As she said on the Archive of American Television, professionally speaking, it was a total dream job thanks to the streamlined, fast-paced schedule. She also noted that she couldn’t have asked for better colleagues. “There were people … Danny Kaye, Roscoe Lee Browne, Christopher Plummer, Josephine Premice,” she gusted. “The people who worked with us, the guest artists, it was amazing.”

Even though The Cosby Show has been tainted by allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, Rashad still holds her memories close to her heart. At the ATX Television Festival, she was keen only to remember the show with fondness. And in 2015, Rashad explained to Showbiz 411 that she found it hard to watch Cosby’s legacy being destroyed. It’s clear the actress will always cherish her time on the show.

Phylicia Rashad raised an artistic family

Once you learn about Phylicia Rashad’s passionate devotion to the arts, it’s hardly surprising to discover that she passed it on to her children, just as her mother did for her. Rashad had two children — a son, born in 1973, and a daughter, the actress Condola Rashad, born in 1986. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the actress who played Clair Huxtable has a long history of playing mothers both on screen and on stage. She explained to WSJ that becoming a mother in real life helped her to bring a certain depth to the mothers she played. “I could look at actresses portraying mothers and I could see who was a mother and who wasn’t,” she said.

Rashad, her actor sister Debbie Allen, and their daughters spoke to Town & Country about how the families are immersed in the arts. Condola said, “We were included in whatever they were doing, and I aspired to that level of professionalism and love for what they do.” She went on to explain that while her mother’s passion inspired her, it was Phylicia’s mother’s influence that is at the root of the family’s incredible artist success.

After starring on The Cosby Show, Phylicia Rashad returned to her first love, Broadway

Even though Phylicia Rashad raves about The Cosby Show at every possible opportunity, television was never her true passion. While she continued to act in films and TV shows after the show finished, throughout the 2000s, Rashad made the theater her main focus. She appeared in a series of well-respected productions both on and off Broadway. In 2000 and 2001, she played Peggy in the world premiere of the play Blue. She then appeared in Helen in 2002, The Story in 2003, and A Raisin in the Sun in 2004. In fact, between 2000 and 2008, she worked on stage constantly, according to Broadway World.

In 2011, Rashad explained in an interview with This Stage why she couldn’t stay away from the world of theater. “It’s alive. It’s living art,” she explained. “Theater is very powerful because it is living art and it touches people. Theater is a communal effort. It has to work together,” she went on, saying that this sense of teamwork and community is what made it so special for her.

Phylicia Rashad was the first African American to win a Tony for Best Actress

In one of her stage roles, Phylicia Rashad ended up making history. When she played Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 2004, she became the first African American woman to be awarded the Tony Award for Best Actress (via Broadway World). She spoke on the Archive of American Television about the historic award. When asked about being the first Black female winner, she recalled thinking, “What happened, nobody was ever nominated before?” She went on, “The greatest part of [winning the award] for me was having my mother, my sister, and my daughter with me. That was wonderful to share that with them.”

She then explained that she almost didn’t take the role, but the director convinced her that she’d “bring something new and different.” She noted that her portrayal of Lena transformed the character from a stereotypical “strong” mother to a more well-rounded character with a complex backstory. We wish we could have seen this Tony-winning performance for ourselves!

Phylicia Rashad taught acting at her alma mater, Howard University

We already discussed how important learning acting at Howard University was for the young Phylicia Rashad. Well, it turns out, the actress eventually returned to her alma mater to teach young actors what she had learned throughout her entertainment career. According to the Howard University Facebook page, Rashad returns occasionally to teach master classes. She also teaches at Julliard and Carnegie Melon.

It’s no surprise that Rashad turned to teaching in spite of her thriving career on stage. Throughout her career, she has been a strong advocate about the importance of arts education. “It’s an insult on the feminine divine to take arts away from schools,” she once said to The Harvard Crimson.

According to NME, one of her pupils at Howard was the late actor Chadwick Boseman, famous for his role as Black Panther. “He wanted to know every single thing there was to know about theater — all of it — and he did not refuse instruction or information from any source or sector,” she recalled.

Phylicia Rashad became a director by chance

After years of working on stage as an actor, Phylicia Rashad eventually turned her hand to directing. As she explained to Los Angeles Sentinel, she never sought out directing positions — instead, they came to her. “[My directing] didn’t start by me saying that, ‘I wanted to direct,'” she said. “My venture into directing began with an invitation from Constanza Romero, whose husband was August Wilson.” Romero asked Rashad to direct her husband’s play Gem of the Ocean. The invitations kept coming, and Rashad found herself adding the label of director to her long list of accomplishments.

She explained to Ebony that the experience of directing was different from acting: “I learn something all the time. I’m learning more about the craft of theater and I’m learning a lot as an actress.” It sounds like taking on directing roles actually helped Rashad to further refine her acting skills.

In an interview with Afro Bella, Rashad shared that directing taught her to focus on “every detail of the production,” while acting is about “realizing a character and understanding a person.” It sounds like all of Rashad’s directing opportunities taught her a lot about theater making!

Phylicia Rashad got a chance to work with her daughter

Phylicia Rashad’s daughter, Condola Rashad, has become a hugely successful and well-respected actress in her own right. Condola has starred in a series of musicals and plays on Broadway (via Playbill), and has picked up an impressive four Tony nominations along the way (via Deadline). The pair eventually got to work together on the Lifetime Channel remake of Steel Magnolia. Phylicia told Ebony, “It was beautiful. It was absolutely beautiful.” She explained that she was hugely impressed with her daughter’s mature, professional attitude on set. 

However, neither Phylicia nor Condola ever thought about working together when Condola was younger. In fact, Condola apparently once said, “Mommy, when I grow up we’ll be best friends and laugh all the time.” By the sounds of things, this dream came true, too!

While Phylicia has yet to direct Condola in a play, it may be something we can look forward to in the future. In discussion on Spectrum News NY1, Condola hinted, “Maybe one day you’ll direct me in something,” then continued, “I think I’m ready for that.” What an amazing collaboration that would be!

Phylicia Rashad shows no signs of slowing down

As of 2020, Phylicia Rashad is in her 70s. At an age when many would consider retiring or at least taking a little time off, Rashad isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, the actor and director seems to be busier than ever! In 2020, she starred in an hour-long drama presented by OWN called David Makes Man, according to Variety. She has also been working on American Slavery Project’s Black Women and the Ballot, a series of three radio plays. Rashad stars in the play Pulling the Lever (via Deadline). And if that weren’t enough, Rashad has been working on a huge project — her revival of Blue, which she was set to direct in 2020, as reported by The New York Times. You can even catch her in the 2020 Netflix holiday called Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (via The Grio). 

It’s clear that Rashad has no plans to ease up her schedule any time soon — and we couldn’t be more excited to see what the remarkable actor and director comes up with next!

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