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Phylicia Rashad was born to play the matriarch

”Cosby” wife and mother takes on similar role in the new-to-video ”Once Upon A Time…When We Were Colored”

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Even on the phone, Phylicia Rashad sounds like the perfect mom. Her voice is soft and reassuring. Bill Cosby told her it was the no-nonsense maternal look in her eye that won her the role of Clair Huxtable, his sensible attorney wife on the hit Cosby Show. And it seems that he can’t bring himself to be married to anyone else on TV; this season she again plays his better half in the new CBS sitcom Cosby. But Rashad discovers new depth as a matriarch (and an actress) in the new-to-video Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored.

”After I read the first three pages of this script, I thought, ‘If I don’t get this film, I’m just going to quit acting,’ ” says Rashad of the drama about a boy’s coming-of-age in a segregated Mississippi town in the 1940s. Of her character, Ma Ponk, she says: ”I felt I knew her. She was my great-aunt Fanny who never had a child of her own, who never married, but who raised everybody.” During the 28-day, no-rehearsal production, first-time director Tim Reid (better known as an actor on WKRP in Cincinnati and Sister, Sister) was captivated by Rashad’s calm. ”I would look over in the corner,” he says, ”and her stillness and her peace would give me the extra thing I needed.”

A native Texan (whose sister is actress-director Debbie Allen), Rashad, 48, moved into a Manhattan YWCA after receiving a degree in fine arts at Howard University. She spent most of the ’70s on stage (The Wiz, The Duplex) and the ’80s on TV. In addition to her second Cosby stint, she’s currently playing a burned-out chorus girl in Pearl Cleage’s play Blues for an Alabama Sky in Washington, D.C.

Somehow she finds time for her own family — her husband, NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, and their daughter, Phylea, 9. (Her son from a previous marriage, Billy Bowles, is a 23-year-old student.) While expressing disappointment with the lack of publicity Once Upon a Time received when it was released theatrically last January, Rashad dishes out some motherly advice. ”I think [Hollywood] hasn’t looked carefully,” she says. ”Fried Green Tomatoes, Forrest Gump — people like to see more about humanity. It doesn’t all have to be about spaceships falling out of the sky.”

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