Zara Cully was an American actress who rose to fame for her role as Olivia “Mother Jefferson” Jefferson on the CBS sitcom The Jeffersons. She portrayed the feisty and outspoken mother of George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) from 1975 until her death in 1978. But what was Zara Cully’s cause of death and how did she die?
Early Life and Career
Zara Frances Cully was born on January 26, 1892 in Worcester, Massachusetts, as the eldest of 10 surviving children. Her family was musical and her younger brother, Wendell Cully, became a jazz trumpeter who played with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She graduated from the Worcester School of Speech and Music and became an elocutionist, writer, producer, director, and actor in various plays. She moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where she taught drama at Edward Waters College, a historically black college founded in 1866 to educate freed slaves. She was known as Florida’s “Dean of Drama” until she moved to Hollywood to escape the racism of the Jim Crow-era South. There, she became a regular performer at the Ebony Showcase Theatre.
The Jeffersons and Other Roles
Zara Cully’s breakthrough role came in 1974 when she appeared as Mother Jefferson on an episode of All in the Family entitled “Lionel’s Engagement”. She reprised the role on the spin-off series The Jeffersons, which followed the lives of George and Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford) as they moved from Queens to a luxury apartment in Manhattan. Cully’s character was a sharp-tongued and opinionated woman who often clashed with her son and daughter-in-law, but also showed her love and wisdom. She was one of the oldest performers active in television at the time of her death and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in 1978 for her role.
Apart from The Jeffersons, Cully had a long list of acting credits spanning over half a century, including movies such as The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), Brother John (1971), Sugar Hill (1974), and Darktown Strutters (1975). Her TV credits included Playhouse 90, The People Next Door, Run for Your Life, Cowboy in Africa, The Name of the Game, Mod Squad, Night Gallery, and more.
Zara Cully’s Cause of Death
Zara Cully died on February 28, 1978 at the age of 86 in Los Angeles, California. Her cause of death was lung cancer, although she did not smoke nor drink. She had been ill with pneumonia and a collapsed lung during the third season of The Jeffersons and missed most of the episodes. She returned for the fourth season but became ill again and died before the season finale. Her death was announced on the show by Louise Jefferson in the episode “The Separation”. She was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Zara Cully was posthumously awarded the NAACP special Image Award at the 11th Annual NAACP Award ceremony on June 9, 1978. She is remembered as a trailblazing actress who brought humor and heart to her role as Mother Jefferson. According to Wikipedia, she once said: “I was told many times to forget show business, I had nothing going for me. But I pursued it anyway. Voila!”