THE BOOK ON COSBY
Author: Gregory Clay
MARK Whitaker's mea culpa regarding his Bill Cosby book:
It almost came tumbling down . . .
. . .
for Bill Cosby, that is.
The year was 1965. Cosby had been cast in NBC-TV’s new prime-time drama “I Spy.”
Except there was one problem: Cosby couldn’t act.
The network wanted him gone. But Sheldon Leonard, the show’s acclaimed executive producer, aimed to salvage Cosby, who at the time was known moreso for being a popular stand-up comedian.
Robert Culp, who had garnered the lead role in the show, had become friends with his new colleague, a novice Bill Cosby. So the more accomplished Culp, as a side job, availed his services as Cosby’s de facto acting coach. Culp had threatened to leave the show for two reasons:
No. 1: Culp didn’t want Cosby fired,
No. 2: Culp wanted Cosby to be granted equal co-star billing with Culp --- instead of Culp as the lead guy with Cosby operating in sort of a supporting role.
Bill Cosby was spared, saved, salvaged --- whatever “s” word you want to use.
That bit of serendipitous history is featured in author and former Newsweek and CNN executive Mark Whitaker’s new book titled: “COSBY: His Life and Times.”
Whitaker participated on a recent Saturday in a panel discussion at the famed NEWSEUM on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington D.C. The book’s timing is ideal as this is the 30th anniversary of the first season of the seminal “The Cosby Show” on NBC.
The audience demographics for the panel also was quite interesting: Out of approximately 90 attendees, I counted only 11 black folk, and that included the NEWSEUM staff workers. I was surprised by that 8-to-1 ratio.
Those lopsided figures struck me on the negative side because Cosby was a pioneering black actor and comedian. On the positive side, the racial demographics provided a prism into Cosby’s crossover appeal.
Remember, “I Spy” debuted in ‘65. There were no regularly featured black male actors in a prime-time dramatic series on U.S. television during that era. Cosby broke that ceiling, which caused me to anticipate a much larger black presence in the NEWSEUM audience.
The audience demographics notwithstanding, Mark Whitaker related a better understanding of Cosby through vivid anecdotes and his own in-depth analysis.
To further hone his scene skills on the show, Cosby later hired black character actor Frank Silvera as his full-time acting coach for “I Spy.” With the help of Culp and Silvera, Cosby’s career was catapulted to new heights. In 1966, Cosby became the first black performer to win a TV Emmy Award.
“I had a real identification with Bill Cosby,” Whitaker said during the panel discussion. “I was fascinated by him in terms of his impact on society. After politicians, lawyers, doctors and judges, I think he’s one of the most influential African-Americans in history.”
That influence also includes the art of giving as the Cosby family attained humanitarian status. Cosby’s philanthropic side, for example, has donated mega-gifts of $20 million to Spelman College in Atlanta in 1988 ---- the largest contribution ever to a predominantly black school at the time ---- and $1.3 million to Fisk University in Nashville.
That’s impressive for an entertainer who, in the 1970s, almost became irrelevant.
Whitaker explained how initially the Cosby camp declined to offer any assistance for the book. Then, a few months after Whitaker’s request for an interview with Cosby, Whitaker received a call from Cosby’s attorney, David Brokaw.
“Cosby wanted to make sure people who he felt should get credit,” Whitaker said of the attorney’s call, “were mentioned in the book.”
People such as Gavin White, the Temple track coach, who Whitaker said Cosby referred to as “his abolitionist.” Cosby was an underperforming student growing up in the Richard Allen Homes, a sprawling housing project on the north side of Philadelphia.
A 500 SAT score didn’t help, but White helped guide Cosby to Temple to compete on the school’s track team.
With that, one must understand Cosby’s academic life before college. “He was a class clown in school,” Whitaker said. “Although he was a bright kid, he was a lousy student.”
But a brilliant comedian even at a young age. One of his teachers, in an effort to entice her class to enjoy writing, asked her students to write about their personal experiences that resonated the most. Cosby wrote a paper about losing a tooth. The hilarity of Cosby’s report so captivated his teacher that she read aloud in class Cosby’s comedic treatise.
A comedian was born; a career later was defined.
However, it was Gavin White, the track coach, who “freed” Cosby to mentally scale new heights.
Cosby competed in several events in track and field, played football and basketball at Temple and ultimately transformed himself from indifferent student to a Ph.d in education recipient years later.
Whitaker mentioned that on his last day at CNN, his assistant summoned him. Bill Cosby was on the telephone. Cosby decided to take an active role in the book. Whitaker related that it appeared Cosby was following Whitaker’s progress on the book and ultimately decided he could trust Whitaker.
Then, the timing of their conversations went like this: Don’t call me; Whitaker, instead, had to wait for Cosby’s unannounced, unpredictable telephone calls.
“Cosby starts calling me --- usually late at night,” Whitaker recalled.
“Much of this book is based on independent reporting.”
Whitaker added, “Cosby resented being portrayed as a clown. He was bothered that the media didn’t take him seriously. I think that’s one reason he took me seriously, because I took him seriously.”
After “I Spy” completed its run in 1968, Cosby hit rock bottom in the 1970s. After making millions between “I Spy” and his stand-up comedy, Cosby fell on hard times. “He was down to his last $50,000,” Whitaker said.
Cosby had tried to expand his 1960s success into the ‘70s, but his three television ventures --- including a variety show --- all flatlined.
“So Cosby packed up his family in Beverly Hills and moved to Massachusetts,” Whitaker said.
By 1977, Cosby had earned his Ph.d from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. That’s when his persona changed.
“In the early 1970s,” Whitaker said, “he was sort of “Disco Bill.’ A playboy type.’’
Then after earning his doctorate, Cosby was viewed as a family man. He had appeared in the popular Jell-O commercials with children of many races. How about him being a TV dad?
That’s when Cosby got his next big break.
Television producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner (of the Carsey-Werner Company) approached Cosby about starring in a comedy centered around a black family.
“Cosby wanted to play a limousine driver and his wife to be a plumber,” Whitaker explained. “But Werner and Carsey wanted a highly educated, upper middle-class black family. The reason the theme went through was because Camille (Cosby’s wife) put her foot down.”
Therefore, Cliff Huxtable the physician and his wife Clair Huxtable the attorney (Phylicia Rashad) were created. The rest is television history as the show lasted for a healthy eight seasons (1984 to 1992).
When “The Cosby Show” pilot was introduced, the first taping was held before a younger audience; it received a tepid response. But a later taping garnered an older audience; the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Whitaker attributed the show’s passionate appeal to older adults growing weary of common family themes already seen and tried incessantly on television. Several shows had featured spoiled and bratty children who appeared to rule the household.
The Cosby pilot was straight-up Parents in Charge. A poignant scene in the pilot featured a dialogue between Cosby’s character (Cliff Huxtable) and his son (Theo). The subject of the conversation centered around Theo’s desire to be a regular person and not necessarily foster a desire to follow in the footsteps of his highly accomplished parents.
Remember when Cliff told Theo: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. You will try to do better . . . Because I said so. . . . I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.”
Score one for parents’ discipline; put down that Brat Pack.
For Cosby, Theo (played by Malcolm Jamal Warner) was the television version of his son Ennis, a handsome kid with a humble personality. But with correctable flaws.
Ennis struggled in school and was later diagnosed with dyslexia. However, he earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Morehouse College and a master’s from Columbia University. In January 1997, Ennis was working toward his doctorate when he was murdered on the San Diego Freeway while changing a flat tire. A Ukrainian immigrant was arrested for the murder.
The next week, the banner headline on the cover of Time magazine read: “A Death in the Family: Bill Cosby ---- America’s favorite TV father ---- copes with the murder of his son.”
Said Whitaker, “Cosby keeps reminders of Ennis everywhere he goes ---- such as a T-shirt that says, ‘Hello Friend.’ That’s because Ennis greeted people with the line, “Hello Friend.”
With that, in 1997, Bill and Camille Cosby established the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation, designed to fulfill Ennis’ desire to help students with learning disabilities.
A highly educated black family on television certainly was a novel idea. Oh, we saw black families featured on prime-time television in the past.
Before “Cosby,” we had the “Good Times” show and all its biting humor. Remember the Evans family living in the stereotypical ghetto housing project in Chicago.
“The Cosby Show” was destined to be different; it was the antithesis of “Good Times.” It wasn’t about poverty, murders, gangs and parents working two or three menial jobs to support a family in the ‘hood.
“The Cosby Show” family had the means to provide a stable household with high-education goals not only as an achievement for the children but also an obligation. The show garnered six Emmy Awards, with 29 nominations.
“When Barack Obama won the presidency,” Whitaker said after the panel discussion, “Karl Rove (Republican strategist) said on Fox News Channel that ‘The Cosby Show’ helped him get elected.”
The thinking goes like this: For the first time on television, an upper middle class, highly educated black family came into mainstream America’s living rooms every week. That portrayal was very new for many white Americans. Therefore, “The Cosby Show” groomed a majority of Americans for the arrival of the Obamas in the White House ---- a real black family featuring parents both with Ivy League educations.
But what’s not mentioned much is this: “Cosby” also acclimated many black Americans to a highly educated black household. With approximately 30 percent of black folk in this country at or below the poverty line, many of them also were just as unfamiliar with black educational and socio-economic success.
Cosby’s shows, including “I Spy,” drilled home the notion that we as people are more alike than dissimilar. Cosby accomplished that by avoiding the racial trap of stereotyping black and white characters.
When asked how Cosby viewed the conflation of his show with the election of Obama, Whitaker said Cosby exhibited more humility than gloating.
“Cosby was more, “No, I’m not taking credit for Obama being elected. It’s more about his election team,’’’ Whitaker said.
Not exactly basking in the limelight.
While Cosby prided himself as being a clean, profanity-free comedian and a true story-teller of comedy and not a jokester, he has been dogged by another facet of his life: infidelity.
“There is a chapter in the book called “Playboy of the West,’’’ Whitaker said. “Cosby liked the ladies and wasn’t faithful. I mentioned (the womanizing).”
But Whitaker cautioned on this subject: “I reported what I was able to independently confirm. I didn’t report what I couldn’t confirm.
“It wasn’t a major part of the book and I didn’t intend it to be a major part of the book.”
To many, Cosby also will be forever labeled as the black antagonist --- not to white folk but to black people.
I remember the hot, humid night of May 17, 2004 at Constitution Hall here in Washington D.C. The occasion: a gala sponsored by the NAACP celebrating the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 that essentially outlawed legal segregation in public schools.
Cosby was at the gala to receive a philanthropic and humanitarian award. During his acceptance speech, Cosby launched into a diatribe berating the lack of parenting in some sectors of the black community.
I was at Constitution Hall that night. Cosby drew resounding applause in his criticism of black folk from a largely black audience. He was the only award recipient that steamy night to voice displeasure with the state of black America since the monumental ruling of ‘54.
Cosby said, in part: “Fifty percent dropout rate, I’m telling you, and people in jail, and women having children by five, six different men. Under what excuse? I want somebody to love me. And as soon as you have it, you forget to parent. Grandmother, mother and great-grandmother in the same room, raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any one of the three of them.
“All this child knows is ‘gimme, gimme, gimme.’ These people want to buy the friendship of a child, and the child couldn’t care less. Those of us sitting out here who have gone on to some college or whatever we’ve done, we still fear our parents. And these people are not parenting. They’re buying things for the kid ---- $500 sneakers ---- for what? They won’t buy or spend $250 on ‘Hooked on Phonics.’’’
Cosby’s comments received major attention ---- and much criticism in the following weeks. Some black critics said he was beating up on poor, black folk.
In any regard, I can attest that he made his point. And most of the black folk in the audience repeatedly cheered him on during a speech that more resembled a church revival than a celebratory gala affair.
Said Whitaker, “Cosby didn’t plan that speech for his award. It was expected that he would say a few words then walk off the dais. However, he didn’t do that. Cosby was saying we’ve made much progress since the Supreme Court decision, but we haven’t gone far enough.”
Still, love him or hate him, Cosby has shown that with unyielding perseverance, educational opportunity and timely innovation, one can find true serendipity.
In any kind of book.
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