Born on May 1, 1930 in Whistler, Alabama, Ayler attended Nashville’s Fisk University as a voice major. But the lure of show business overcame the academic life, and she moved to Chicago to pursue a singing career. Her breakthrough came as a member of a touring company of Porgy and Bess.
Langston Hughes’s musical Simply Heavenly marked Ayler’s Off-Broadway bow in 1957, and she soon moved on to a role as Lena Horne’s understudy in the Broadway play Jamaica. She also worked on other Broadway productions, including The Cool World, Kwamina, Black Picture Show and The First Breeze of Summer.
Ayler was a long-standing member of the Negro Ensemble Company, and appeared with them many times. She also starred in the 1960s in Jean Genet’s off-Broadway play The Blacks: A Clown Show, as part of a cast that included Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge and Louis Gossett Jr.
Ayler may be best remembered for her role as Bill Cosby wife Clair Huxtable’s mother, Carrie Hanks, on The Cosby Show. She appeared on six episodes during the show’s run, offering sage advice to her daughter. Ayler said she named her character after her grandmother. Her other TV appearances included episodes of Family Ties, Martin, Friends, Brooklyn South, Six Feet Under and 7th Heaven.
In film, Ayler won a Spirit Award nomination as Best Supporting Female for her work in the 1990 film To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover. She also appeared in 9½ Weeks (1986) and The Bodyguard (1992), and played voodoo believer Garn Mere in the critics favorite 1997 film Eve’s Bayou.
Ayler last appeared on Broadway in the Tony-nominated production The Little Foxes in 1997.