I once wrote for Bill Cosby, but turned down a chance to do more.
Everyone is saying ‘Bill Cosby was America’s dad’. An easy thing to say. But this is what it means: The great Lenny Bruce used to have a joke about black men on television and in the movies: the noble Sidney Poitiers and Woody Strodes, the long-suffering Brock Peters and James Earl Joneses, and the always-smiling Sammy Davis Jrs. These men were often essentially the sidekicks; surplus to requirements; the guys who carried the moral lesson and the moral load of the story. The helpers. The martyrs.
Lenny Bruce said of them: ‘In the movies, do you know what the difference is between Lassie and a black man? At the end of the movie Lassie lives.’
Bill Cosby was no Lassie. His debut was in a television series called I Spy. It began its run on NBC in 1965 and ended a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, 1968. That was apt, in a way, because it was just about the time that my generation was moving away from the non-violent resistance of our elders in the Civil Rights Movement. We were not going to turn the other cheek; and besides, we had discovered The Beatles; and Motown and Bob Dylan and James Bond and Carnaby Street, and French movies and Africa: entirely other worlds than the quiet and noble resistance of our elders.
I Spy, an adventure series about two secret agents travelling the world disguised as a tennis player and his trainer, perfectly fitted what my generation knew we were becoming. Each episode was filmed on location. No Hollywood backlots. The real thing. So we saw a big world.
The ‘tennis player’ was a white guy, jaunty and always in trouble. His ‘trainer’ and fellow spy, an African American man. He was straight-laced, a Rhodes scholar, fluent in several languages. He was the brains of the two.
They both chased women, bad guys and fellow spies. The black guy, Cosby’s Alexander ‘Scotty’ Scott, was never subservient; never expected to die at the end. And he did not sing, nor did he dance. He was sober, serious and never cracked a joke. Which was an incredible thing for a stand-up comic like Cosby to pull off.
There was never any reference to the skin colour of the character played by Cosby who, by the way, had never acted before accepting the role in I Spy. Cosby was the first African American to have a lead role on television. I Spy was so future-forward that it even had an episode set in Vietnam, when very few television shows did that. It was so shocking that I can still remember it, still see the fabulous French-Vietnamese actress France Nuyen, when asked by Cosby’s sidekick, since she was ‘Oriental’, wasn’t she meant to bow down or something. She snapped back: ‘You’re in the wrong century, Jack.’
This was how I came to know Cosby and I had no idea that he had come out of The Playboy Club and Mansion scene in my native Chicago, a haven for black comics who wanted to do more than ‘shuck and jive’.
And like Hefner, Cosby turned out to have that contradiction, too: a ground-breaker, who turned out to be a breaker of women. Cosby’s trajectory after I Spy is known to everyone: a series of jaunty buddy-movies with Sidney Poitier, that broke Poitier’s noble exterior to reveal a fine comedian underneath. And the television shows and the albums and the breakthrough: when he sold things to little white kids on television and he was just ‘Bill Cosby’, Nice Human Being.
The sight of a black man playing with little white kids would have, in the past, been considered unthinkable. But Cosby had transcended that, become something different. Something other.
I was associated with him briefly twice in the 1980s. I was asked once, while his ground-breaking show The Cosby Show was in the planning stages, if I would like to write for it.
I was taken along to see the pilot and afterwards announced rather grandly, full of my downtown New York hipness, that this was like everything else on television and no thank you.
I was too stupid to see that this was the genius of the concept. Cosby had created an aspirational family: an affluent family, an accomplished family with a dad at the head of it who was full of ‘daddyness’.
His Dr Cliff Huxtable could not only cure the body, but the soul and the mind. Cosby had gathered together in a concept the data created by his successful albums, tours and television shows, to create what the people wanted.
The people had no idea that after the travails of the Civil Rights Movement, and the urban uprisings, and the Black Panthers, that what they wanted to see was what black people looked like if left alone. To just be people. ‘Causes’ on The Cosby Show were things like: should the Tooth Fairy come tonight or tomorrow night?; or, how to help my dyslexic son?
Always behind this was the knowledge that this was an African American family that had not only overcome. Nor only survived. But thrived. The show was so successful, such a cash machine for NBC, that the network’s nickname was Network Bill Cosby.
My other encounter with Cosby was with the man himself. It was 1986 at Radio City Music Hall and I was asked to write a few lines for him as part of the first celebration of Martin Luther King Day. To be at the world-famous Radio City Music Hall was enough: to be around Whitney Houston, just at the beginning of her career, bright and shining and giggly; and to hear the voice of her cousin, Dionne Warwick, floating through the air as she rehearsed on the great stage, was quite unforgettable.
Cosby strolled into my little writer’s cubicle, tall and rangy and casual and smiling. His speciality, observational humour, was apparent in the things that he wanted me to write: stuff like being in a supermarket in the wrong aisle, trying to get a car started, etc.
I think he liked what I did because with some minor embellishments, he delivered my lines and I got to stand with all the crew and the writers and the musicians and the stars on that great, historic expanse of stage. And marvelled at how I got there.
That same year I moved to the UK and like all things American, except my family, I deliberately lost track of him because I wanted to avoid being homesick.
One young African American man said to me recently that the trouble for him is that Bill Cosby had invented him. He had built himself on the black man that Cosby had appeared to be. Now he was afraid that he would be considered part of the ruse, the lie that friendly Dr. Huxtable hid. We knew that we would have to begin that journey, all too common these days, of detaching yet another man from the great things that he had made.