ADDENDUM: The post below was written and published prior to the revelations about Bill Cosby’s personal life, which of course have diminished my admiration for him considerably.
To be my age is to have grown up loving and admiring Bill Cosby (born this day in 1937). His public persona at least. Who knows what he’s like in real life? Well, nowadays a cranky old man, I guess, but that’s to be expected in your eighth decade.
I am just a hair younger than his career. He began cutting his classic comedy albums in the mid to early sixties. A little over a decade later we used to listen to them in the library during “study periods” in Junior High School and they seemed like relics from some long-ago civilization. But, if you put a gun to my head, I think I could still recreate them from memory!
I was too young to have seen (or remembered) the original run of I Spy (1965-1968), his groundbreaking series with Robert Culp, and I still haven’t watched it to this day – – a glaring omission in my cultural dossier that I hope to rectify. But I did watch plenty of his first solo starring series The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971) and which I wrote about in this blogpost here. I watched these a decade after the fact though, on cable reruns in the early 80s.
But I was the PERFECT age to watch all his later projects contemporaneously, because they were:
* Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids! (1972-1985)
* The Electric Company and Sesame Street!
* and Jello Pudding endorsements!
Somewhere in there Cosby had gotten a degree in education and become Dr. Cosby – -how many people in show business do stuff like that? He loved kids and we adored him right back. Weird Harold, Dumb Donald and Bucky were certainly among the first impressions I ever did.
Also, believe it or not, throughout the 1970s, Cosby was a plausible movie star (for part of the 80s, he was an implausible one). He was in Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975), Mother, Juggs and Speed (1976), A Piece of the Action (1977), and California Suite (1978). He’s not exactly a thespian, though — he’s best when playing himself, and his later films such as The Devil and Max Devlin (1981), Leonard Part 6 (1987), and Ghost Dad (1990) are considered among the few sore spots in a career that is otherwise almost all peaks.
From 1984 he helmed his seminal tv sit com The Cosby Show, which had grown out of the excellent concert film Bill Cosby Himself (1983).The new series marked a huge comeback for him and completely set a new standard for African American representation on American television. We wrote about Jimmy Walker here the other day (and saw him last night in an egregious performance in the Sy Fy movie Supershark.) It takes a LOT of undoing to blot out the kind of negative impressions performances like Walker’s leave in the public’s mind, because they had been the rule for decades. The Cosby Show was a welcome antidote.
And he kept going! He hosted a revived version of the game show You Bet Your Life in 1992, which makes a kind of sense. He loves to tease, and he had actually been friends with Groucho Marx twenty years earlier. (In his stand up days, Cosby had even smoked a cigar – -I still associate him with that prop even though it’s been a lifetime since he’s used it.)
Then there was The Cosby Mysteries (1994-1995), another sit-com Cosby (1996-2000), and in 1998 a revived version of Art Linklater’s Kids Say the Darnedest Things. This is really just the tip of the iceberg — there’s probably another hundred projects to his credit, but you know where to find lists of them: IMDB and Wikipedia.
In 1997, his son Ennis William Cosby was tragically murdered in an armed robbery while changing a tire by the side of the highway. The incident, understandably, effected the comedian deeply. For the past decade or so, he has made his biggest waves (often controversial ones) in public remarks he has made on cultural issues effecting black Americans.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc