From Why Is There Air to Hello Friend
- Full Name: Doctor William Henry Cosby Jr.
- Birth: July 12th, 1937, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
- Chief Historical Significance: With I Spy in 1965, Cosby became the first African-American actor to star in a dramatic TV series.
Occupations and Titles of Distinction: Bill Cosby is a comedian, producer, actor, writer, philanthropist, art collector, philosopher, storyteller, cultural icon, living legend, walking and breathing national treasure, and has for the latter half of the twentieth century actively and successfully contributed to a more positive portrayal of blacks in American entertainment and culture. In 1977 the University of Massachusetts awarded him a doctorate in education, specializing in reaching children's minds.
Childhood: Coming from a broken family, Cosby was raised by a single mother of such courage and wisdom as to instill hope and an unrelenting compassion in the young man. In fact it's hard to tell how much or how little of Cos's early comedy about his childhood matched real life. Accurate biographies of his real life contradict claims he made in early comic routines. The image or impression Bill Cosby instilled in audiences of the 60s and 70s was that of a childhood he wished he had. When he was eight, his brother James passed away. His father left his mother when he was very young. Some reports say he left for the military when Bill was nine. Other reports indicate a separation or divorce. Bill's mother went to work, Bill himself took up a job as a shoeshine boy, and on top of that he cared for his younger brothers.
Scholastics: Bill Cosby showed intelligence in school. Things came easy to him, but he didn't take studying seriously. He was noticeably prone to athletics, but preferred cracking up to a touchdown. Inevitably he followed in his father's footsteps, dropped out of high school without a degree, and went into the navy. After a minimum requirement of service, Cosby realized that one can't go far in life without an education. He took an equivalency test (similar to today's GED) which got him into Philadelphia's prestigious Temple University.
Cos the Comedian: Even at a young age, Bill Cosby would tell tall tales, stretch the truth, and weave yarns for his younger brothers to entertain them and pass the time, and he'd do the same as he grew up for others in the neighborhood and anyone who cared to listen. Without realizing it, by sharpening his wit and exercising his silver tongue, Cos was exercising what he'd learn to be the one most important muscle of the human body: the brain. As he entered college, in his spare time he began attending local comedy clubs and other venues, rubbed elbows with peers in the local scene, and honed his skills as a stand up comic. Local exposure led to regional and national exposure. His storytelling was fresh and unique while still retaining a wholesome family quality about it. Unlike other stars working at the time, like Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, Bill Cosby kept his routines clean, and talked about issues that brought his audiences closer to him instead of alienating them and setting them apart from each other. He broke through cultural and racial barriers and became a mainstream presence throughout America at a very young age.
From 1965 to well into the 21st century, throughout his career Cosby has produced a score of incredible comedic record albums, including:
Bill on the Boob Tube: Tours throughout North America led to Bill Cosby's first appearance on television in 1965 on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Exposure on the stand up comedian circuit allowed Bill to network and he soon found his way on the TV adventure drama I Spy with Robert Culp. This series broke ground in many ways. Cosby's very presence on the show was significant, but he also insisted his female romantic leads to be his color, and he actively requested that his character be presented in a way that would offer a role model for young black people. After a successful three year run, in which Cosby had won three Emmys, Cosby tried another short-lived variety comedy show called simply Cos and a few other less significant projects. Then in the seventies he hosted the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Comedy show for Saturday morning television, and began what has become a one-man crusade for positive and thought-provoking children's entertainment that sparks their creative juices and offers them positive perspectives, while occasionally teaching them something along the way. Bill Cosby also participated in a series of short subject pieces called Picture Pages which were broadcast during the Captain Kangaroo children's series on CBS for the final years of its existence.
Most successful achievement to date: Then from 1984 to 1992 came the hit NBC family comedy The Cosby Show. It focused on a fictional family loosely based on his own family life. He played Doctor Heathcliff Huxtable with the lovely and talented Phylicia Rashad by his side as lawyer and wife Clair. Together they faced the weekly highs and lows of raising five brain-damaged children: Rudy, Vanessa, Denise, Theo, and Sondra. Again concentrating on staring in the face of flat stereotypes and sticking his tongue out at them, Cosby portrayed his TV family as successful and generous, and he painted a much more positive outlook on mankind as a whole, rather than to wallow in the muck of pessimism and sarcasm so prevalent in other entertainment from the same time period.
ABC foolishly turned down the pilot, stating that it didn't believe America was ready to accept the concept of a successful black middle-class family. NBC cautiously signed on for six episodes with an option for more if the first ones were successful. Needless to say The Cosby Show broke ratings records immediately, and continued to thrive for eight glorious seasons. The Cosby Show was both a shot in the arm and refreshing alternative, winning many awards as well as millions of hearts of regular TV viewers. This show also offered several young talents a chance to spread their wings and fly. Lisa Bonet, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempestt Bledsoe and even Sinbad are each pursuing careers in television and film, having used The Cosby Show as a launching pad.
In 1994 there was The Cosby Mysteries which admittedly crashed and burned. Based loosely on the standard TV formula of mildly comedic crime dramas which have populated television since the days of Peter Falk's Columbo and most recently resurfaced with Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder. Cosby's style and humor simply didn't transfer well to the tired and restrictive formula. In 1996 Cosby produced and starred in yet another show, this time for CBS, which achieved critical acclaim but little audience success. This series is most significant in that it was the last performance for actress, comedienne and all around shining star of mankind Ms. Madeline Kahn. And of course on top of many television series and specials, Cosby has throughout his career appeared in television commercials and also children's programming like Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo and the Electric Company.
Bill on the Big Screen: The majority of Cosby's success has admittedly been on the small screen. When he turns to motion pictures his magic somehow gets diluted. Some of his best work in film was with Sidney Portier in the 1970s. Uptown Saturday Night, A Piece of the Action and Let's Do It Again are a couple examples. Though the material is dated and more stereotypical than his later works, they're fun and at the time received nominal success. In 1976 Cosby costarred with Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel in the ambulance comedy Mother, Jugs and Speed, another dated but memorable film. However, most of Cosby's film work can be summed up in three words: playing it safe. Because of his natural tendencies to steer from too much violence or sexuality or innuendo, and wanting clean and fresh entertainment, it often seems the programming goes in the opposite direction. Overly cautious of what is said, consequently nothing of any significance gets said, and beyond the shallow surface, there's little to no depth to his cinematic work, either as an actor or a producer.
Perhaps the single most profound exception to that is Bill Cosby: Himself from 1982 which is a full length motion picture that contains nothing but Bill sitting at a chair telling his stories. It captures him at his most profound and powerful: on stage before a live audience. Filmed at the Hamilton Place Theatre in Ontario, it is like having a front row seat in a packed house, experiencing a living marvel in action. Though far from what a movie is typically supposed to be, it's the one time I've seen Bill Cosby take command of the silver screen for the entire run of a film.
From there, things simply go downhill. Some of the most painful cinematic performances ever by Bill Cosby were in the last fifteen years of the twentieth century, and include his work in Leonard Part 6, Ghost Dad, and Meteor Man. Despite noble and courageous efforts, consistency seems to prove Cosby is simply not destined to be known as a phenomenal movie actor. He was okay in Jack with Robin Williams, but his role in that film is all too brief.
Bill Cosby the Living Legend: This didn't stop him from being celebrated by the world in 1998 during the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievements in television and education. And he continues to be honored and awarded by many organizations every year. His touch and voice have affected the nation and the world in ways even he cannot truly fathom, and his mere presence on this planet continues to have positive ramifications and will continue to do so long after his death.
His existence has a powerful moral. It is this: Really, all we have to do is breathe. All we have to do is show up. Stand up and be counted for what we know to be inherently right. Dr. William H. Cosby is living irrefutable proof that if one does take the extra effort and time to pursue one's dreams and seek out to help others along the way, the rewards will return multiplied, and despite adversity and hardship, you will persevere, but only if you return bad energies with good, ignorance with enlightenment, and frowns with laughter.
Update January 31st, 2003: A personal note. A few months ago I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Mr. Cosby live and in person. He appeared for a benefit of a homeless shelter. He preached more than told jokes. He gave advice and wisdom to those who put the benefit together and thanked those who contributed to the cause. Then he astounded us with his classic Dentist performance. He could have read the phone book and I would have been enchanted. It was a pleasure, an honor and a privilege to have seen him in person.