(actor/comedian, born July 12, 1937, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Bill Cosby is one of the most influential performers of the second half
of the 20th century. His live appearances have been selling out nightclubs,
concert halls and arenas across the country for four decades; he has had
an unparalleled career in television; he is the best-selling comedian
of all time on records; his blockbuster books have sold millions of copies;
and his generous support of numerous charities, particularly in the field
of education, have endowed many Americans with the gift of hope and learning.
However, it is through his groundbreaking appearances on television, particularly
in two landmark series each of which defined an American decade, that
Bill Cosby has most decisively touched the lives of millions of Americans.
In the 1960s, "I Spy" broke the racial barrier in television by featuring
Cosby as the first-ever black lead of a weekly dramatic series. In the
1980s, Cosby returned to television with a show that Coretta Scott King
described as "the most positive portrayal of black family life that has
ever been broadcast." "The Cosby Show" enjoyed years of number-one ratings
and nearly unanimous critical praise. The show single-handedly resurrected
the moribund sitcom genre and helped lift NBC from last place to first
in the ratings by portraying, according to Newsweek, a diametrically
opposite side of the black experience than what had previously been seen
on television: "a tightly nuclear, upscale family coping with the same
irritations and misunderstandings that afflict their white counterparts."
Cosby's TV clan was the very model of a strong, close-knit, parent-dominated
unit. "The fact that the family is black, without making a particular
point of it," reported Time magazine, "is an encouraging sign of
maturity in matters of race."
Coming from a poor Philadelphia neighborhood, Bill Cosby represents
the voice of the vast, ordinary world out there. Everyone seems to easily
identify with his characters and the situations they find themselves in.
Cosby's humor often centers on the basic cornerstones of our existence,
seeming to provide an insight into our roles as men and women, family
members, children, parents. He points out the humor in our lives, and
for that we are grateful. "He is Everyman and also his own man,' said
Mel Gussow in the New York Times "A witty American humorist in
complete touch with the source of his material: himself ."
As a boy, Cosby saw little of his father, a mess steward in the Navy.
His mother was the major influence and his first audience member. It didn’t
take him long to begin making up gags and practicing routines on her,
and she always encouraged his inventive performances of everyday household
happenings. He attended elementary school with his pals Fat Albert, Old
Weird Harold, Dumb Donald, Weasel, and many of the other memorable characters
later immortalized in his comedy routines. He left tenth grade to join
the Navy and finished high school via a correspondence course while still
in the service. When he was discharged, he enrolled at Temple University
in Philadelphia, hoping to become a physical education teacher. To support
himself he tended bar at night, where he found another readymade audience
for his brand of home-grown humor. Word of Cosby's talent spread north
to New York, he left school to perform in Greenwich Village clubs, and
within a year landed a guest spot on "The Tonight Show." The year was
1963 and Cosby revolutionized American comedy. At the peak of the civil
rights movement, Cosby was unique among black comedians of the time in
not using race as a subject. "I don’t think you can bring the races together
by joking about the differences between them," he said. "I’d rather talk
about the similarities, about what's universal in their experiences."
In 1965, Cosby made the transition from stand-up comedian to actor with
the series "I Spy" and changed the face of television. Coinciding with
the crest of the civil rights movements, the series’ light touch was "balm
for the jangled American psyche of the time," said the New York Times.
It was a historic moment in casting when a black man was placed along
side a white man as his equal and it created international interest in
the show and in the young comedian, who won three Emmy Awards.
Feature films roles soon followed, including his debut in the Civil
War drama Man and Boy, Hickey and Boggs, with Robert Culp; Uptown
Saturday Night with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte and its sequel
Let's Do It Again; Mother, Jugs and Speed with Raquel Welch, A
Piece of the Action, again with Poitier, and most recently Jack,
with Robin Williams.
There was also more television. After "I Spy" came the drama "The Bill
Cosby Show" in 1971, a comedy variety show called "Cos" in 1976, "The
Cosby Mysteries" in 1994, and "Cosby" on CBS, plus specials and daytime
childrens programs such as "The Electric Company," "Sesame Street," and
the critically acclaimed Saturday-morning cartoon series "Fat Albert and
the Cosby Kids." It was, though as the main attraction and chief architect
of "The Cosby Show," that Bill Cosby, in the words of Time magazine,
"dominated the medium as no star has since the days of Lucille Ball and
Milton Berle." With its gentle humor, upbeat message, and cross-cultural
appeal 'The Cosby Show" entranced viewers week after week from 1984-92,
with the simple but refreshing message that "people are many things simultaneously.
‘Race' is one such thing, but it isn’t the only one and it isn’t always
the primary one." (The New York Times).
Cosby's success on television has been matched in other areas. In 1986
he broke Radio City Music Hall’s 53-year-old attendance record for his
concert appearance. Cosby's also a giant in the publishing world. Fatherhood
(1986) became the fastest-selling hardcover book of all time, remaining
for more than half of its fifty-four weeks on The New York Times
Best Seller List as Number 1. It has sold 2.6 million hardcover copies
and 1.5 million paperbacks. Time Flies had the largest single first
printing in publishing history--1.75 million. He has had 21 albums on
the national pop charts (three in the Top 10 and three more in the Top
20) which have earned him eight Gold Records and five Grammy Awards.
A crusader throughout his career for a better world, his great success
in the world of entertainment is complemented by his involvement with
a host of charity organizations, making substantial gifts in support of
education, most notably to predominantly black colleges and to various
social service and civil rights organizations.
On the evolution of his own style of comedy, Bill Cosby states that he
was drawn at an early age to the masters of jazz, learning to emulate
in comedy their ability to take an idea and continually find new and innovative
ways of expressing the same theme. The legacy of Bill Cosby's comedic
genius is as sweet, meaningful and universal as any piece of music ever