It doesn’t mean anything if you can’t take what you know and make America a better place.
For a while he thought he would end up as a shoeshine boy. Then for a time he worked as a physical therapist, literally a hands-on job in which the reality of other people’s pain sifted through some of his premature youthful bitterness.
Like a lot of poor kids of his generation, he looked on education as a way up and out of the streets and went to Temple University on a track scholarship. But it was as a bartender that he first realized the power of being able to make people laugh--and the awesome control it gives anyone who can master it--and that’s the road he took.
Twenty-five years or so later, Bill Cosby is seemingly ubiquitous on the American entertainment scene. “The Cosby Show” has been on top of the television ratings heap virtually every week since it came on the air in 1984, and its syndication has guaranteed him an estimated personal return of $250 million--this over his annual income of $10 million. His place at the forefront of the stand-up comedy scene is so assured that his routines have taken on the familiarity of an ongoing comic saga, like a leisurely series of pop feuilletons syndicated by a gifted storyteller (his three books, which read like extended comedy routines, have been best sellers).
He’s made well over a score of comedy albums. He’s one of the few figures equally at home in the American heartland and the world of jazz, with its hip invocations of the nocturnal reflex and its deep, urbane shrewdness. In an age of the inescapable sales pitch, Cosby’s credibility rivals that of Ronald Reagan as the country’s top commercial point man. He’s made a dozen movies, none of them commercial or critical successes--Cosby seems to lack the ability to shift rhythmic gears or to puzzle out fresh angles on character; he hasn’t as yet located the fine actor’s mercury in himself, although his role in the upcoming “Ghost Dad” may challenge this assessment.
Cosby occupies a certain place in our cultural imagination that few would want to see dislodged: A comedian who is unquestionably an adult, as well as a father and a husband; a black man who makes no covert jabs into the underbrush of white guilt; an avuncular figure whose slow tales offer a humane respite to the underlying anxiety of force-fed 24-hour news.
But the greatest source of his appeal may lie in his symbolic effort to summon up credible personal dignity in an age crackling with cynicism and dismay and to locate a genuine base for moral authority in a culture where the idea of authority has become--too often legitimately--suspect.
Cosby is deeply aware of this symbolism as an American cultural godfather, and he works hard to polish and sustain it. But he’s also a volatile, driven man. He loves his pleasures and his bonhomie, but he does not suffer fools and he has a long memory for the slights as well as the favors that have come his way. He’s a tireless big-daddy raconteur, expansive and funny, but every now and then you’ll catch him in an unguarded moment, when his eyes fix heavily on an abstract middle distance and his face sags in a sour primeval melancholy. Then he looks like a man packing a lot of trouble in mind.
Cosby was in an introspective mood recently, prompted by more than the usual autumn in New York ruminations. He had spent the summer shooting “Ghost Dad” at Universal instead of taking his customary vacation with his wife in the South of France, which meant he was starting the new season of “The Cosby Show” without benefit of a rest. (“Ghost Dad” is a family movie, directed by Sidney Poitier, that deals with a father overseeing the lives of his three children from beyond the grave.) Too, it was beginning to occur to him that the show would not go on forever, though “I’m not announcing an end,” he said emphatically. “There are some more things I want to do with it.”
There were, of course, the reports of his daughter Erinn having gone public with her tale of drug and alcohol addiction. If, as Lear said, a daughter’s ingratitude is sharper than a serpent’s tooth, the revelation carried the added shock of having finally broken through Cosby’s powerful and lengthy resolve to keep family matters off-limits to the press. Would any of this bear on the familial sanctity of the Huxtables as America’s No. 1 family?
Cosby is nothing if not tough-minded, but the news of his daughter and his autumnal frame of mind may have been just enough to stir up some Lear-like deliberations. In his Manhattan townhouse and on the set of his TV show, he spoke restlessly and searchingly on envy, racism, the press, the scars of early poverty, the matter of his daughter, the criticism of his show, and his apprehension of a mass ethical breakdown eating through America like dry rot.
“Now this is a headline, man,” he said, reaching for a copy of the New York Daily News. “ ‘MOB ATTACKS TWO JEWS.’ These papers have learned to talk street talk. Look here.” A headline in the New York Post read “DEATH AT 100 MPH,” with a subhead reading “2 Corvettes Racing Kill Teenage Pedestrian.” The story had to do with a drag race on a Long Island street, in which one of the young drivers cut down a teen-age girl who had stepped into a crosswalk and then, on the advice of his father, hacksawed his car to pieces.
“It was not, ‘I think we better get a good lawyer,’ ” Cosby observed. “No, it’s ‘We got to get rid of the evidence.’ How do you live with that, even if you do get rid of the evidence? There appears to be a state of mind existing in certain areas that are not really being addressed publicly.”
Cosby is a circuitous speaker who follows a thought as though it were ambling down the street. If his listener interjects with a question while Cosby is about his study, he’ll say, “Don’t jump me, man. I’m gettin’ there.”
At his town house, he was dressed in warm-up pants and a green Philadelphia Eagles sweat shirt. At 52, he still has the muscular torso of an NFL running back, with big, strong arms and hands--his comedy tends to distract us from an imposing physical power.
He was seated at his large desk, in an oversized, sparse chair that looked like the modern skeletal variant of a throne. The room is busy but not cluttered, dominated by vibrant, colored, Afro-American paintings. The head of a small neo-classical bronze bust behind him is obscured by a tiny Eagles helmet. The space between the study’s tall windows is taken up by a large African sculpture in which several hierarchical levels of a society’s life are played out over a huge, Buddha-shaped head, as if to suggest that man in his organization and endeavors is a dream of God’s.
“A long time ago, in the ‘50s and late ‘40s, in my area, we had gangs in the neighborhood,” he said musingly. “The street corner was where they gathered, preferably near a corner store. Not the bar--these kids were 13, 14 years old. They had the switch-blade, obviously a badge of belonging. They even had handmade guns that could fire a .22 bullet. These kids were thought of as bad kids. In their thinking, they were displaced warriors. They really enjoyed beating up people and fighting. They’d actually call on and have a meeting with a group like themselves who might be nine blocks away. They took knives and guns and fought a designated battle. 10th and Poplar at 8 o’clock is going to fight 11th and Columbia. Over what? A girl? A guy who crossed the wrong street? A piece of cement they don’t even own? The city owns it.
“It was a territorial kind of fighting. Clearly there was a state of mind that was frightening. These guys could take your life and have no emotion about it.
“Forty years later, the guys on the corner have changed. It isn’t cheap wine anymore, it’s cheap crack. It isn’t a switch-blade knife anymore, it’s guns that can fire 30 bullets in a second. It’s changed too because there are so many more . We do need in this country more behavioral scientists; the United States of America needs to address itself to mental sickness.
“This is not new. I hear people in their 60s and 70s talk about how you couldn’t walk through Little Italy in 1939. What kind of behavior is that when you know nothing about a person or his religious belief, but because he doesn’t live in your three-or-four-block radius you can send him home bloody and beaten? Where does that hatred come from? How has that built into the anger and absolute antisocial behavior we have?” He looked at the headline again: “Mob beats two Jews,” he repeated, incredulously.
“I think we’ve overburdened our religions, forced them to carry the ball. But the people in religion don’t want interference from the behavioral scientists. There’s an antagonism between religion and science. It shouldn’t be there, but you see it, for example, in the disbelief of the notion that Eve was African.”
He went to the window and watched the movement in the street. “It has to do with money and power, and of course the lower economic people who have no power, except their identification with the underdog. I see this antisocial behavior out there, which is growing and growing and growing. Look what’s happening in education. You have teen-agers who have no idea why they’re afraid to study or push themselves academically. It’s easy to blame other people, or the government, for having no faith in yourself, or having low self-esteem. But the expression of our mass psychosis is in our antisocial behavior. I know that’s a broad spectrum shot, but when you have a mob jump two kids coming out of a frat house, and they don’t even know them; or when a bunch of guys rape a woman in the park and it’s not even about money, it shows that there’s a large number of people out there who condone this.
“This country governmentally thinks we still need slaves,” he said. “In terms of capitalism itself, if you have poor people, that’s how you make money. You have a group of people you want to keep working for less; the way to achieve that is not to educate them. But in the long run, what does that really achieve? A weakening of our strongest commodity: Human beings. As long as you have a lower economic class of young people believing that what’s hip is not to study--as you see manifested and reinforced in the music--and that all you want out of life is to party and ‘be me,’ you may have a class of people not satisfied with what they do, but they won’t be able to do anything about it. Even if we have to put in our schools more courses in religion and human behavior, we have to find ways to convey self-strength. We’ve gotta get that to our children.”
The conversation shifted to the press, which generally has treated Cosby well, though he has a reputation for being abrupt and overbearing if a question isn’t to his liking. “The pen is mightier than the sword because you don’t have to be there to get stabbed by the pen,” he quipped. “A person will come to you and you don’t know if they’re honest. I don’t have patience with people who haven’t done their homework. There are critics of what I do, and that’s fine. But I’m not happy with people who attribute statements to me without checking, ‘Did you say such and such?’ ” He referred to a recent TV Guide article in which “I Spy” co-star Robert Culp was quoted as saying he’d taught an inexperienced young Cosby a great deal about acting and had defended him against critics on the show but that now Cosby was ignoring his old mentor and friend.
“They didn’t burn me. They burned Bob,” Cosby said. “I told him, ‘They did you in.’ He told me his remarks were taken out of context, but I already knew that. Why does TV Guide wanna do a job on me? Because they sent someone over in the early ‘70s who did a hatchet job on me. Now what kind of fool would I be to let someone come to my house twice who’s done me in the first time?
(Cosby’s loyalty to old friends and associates has often been cited. A 1985 Newsweek profile on Cosby reports that when Culp asked for his help in convincing NBC to buy a series pilot, Cosby replied, “Bobby, I’m a 2,000-pound elephant. Let’s go.”).
“One of the best guys I ever saw handle this kind of pressure was Tom Selleck. They kept going after ‘this good-looking guy who’s not doing well against Cosby.’ They said I criticized the show. What I did criticize was its treatment of blacks, where a black was either a hooker or the object of a joke about blacks. Tom wouldn’t have any of it. He came over to the show one day and surprised us all.
“They can go after you. Look at Roseanne. They wouldn’t let her have her moment in the sun before they jumped on her. You’d think she’s been on the air for 10 years. What I find most irritating about the press is that when they make a mistake they don’t come back and admit it. My father always said, ‘Don’t trust anyone who has to make a deadline.’ ”
The subject returned to the depiction of blacks on television. “African-Americans look at a show like ‘Saturday Night Live’ and they turn it off because they see themselves mishandled. There’s no integration on that staff--it’s that whole elitist, young white liberal crowd, that ‘Why are you here if you’re not gonna let us dislike you, or martyr you?’ ”
But what of the criticism of “The Cosby Show” as a sanitized, ‘50s-style white show in blackface? “My first defense is that the show is about Americans,” Cosby said. “We happen to be the only people an interviewer feels comfortable asking, ‘Are you Afro-American first, or black, and then American?’ What do you mean ‘and then?’ Should I say, ‘Are you a white guy before you’re an American?’ ” Cosby was begging the same question of American identity that Nadine Gordimer pointed to in her statement on South Africa when she wrote, “The ego of South Africa is white.” Is the ego of 1989 America still white?
“A more basic question would be, ‘Do you know yourself?’ ” Cosby said. He leaned forward toward his listener with the open, self-scrutinizing intensity normally reserved for one’s mirror, and stroked his cheek with three fingers. “Living in this world, with this color of skin, there is no total rest, period. There is no total comfort . Period.” That cheek-stroking gesture is something he uses when he alludes to the deep caution blacks have had to use over the years when they come up against the flammable heat of white power. It’s an inside reference that implies a compact with primal fear.
“I have a saying, ‘African-Americans are the only people who do not have any good ol’ days.’ This Supreme Court will make it seem like 1970 was the good ol’ days. But when you shovel a whole lot of folks back, the shovel will include white people too. There are tons of white Americans who organized for civil rights and marched in Washington in numbers that far exceed five guys who attacked two Jews, or the gang that attacked two blacks. There’s more noise, the parade is bigger. But they’re not as strong.”
It’s hard to tell whether Cosby’s touchiness over criticism of his show is the reaction of a star’s eggshell ego or if it’s over his defense of it as an imperative of positive imagery. Clearly he sees it as a frail edifice against those forces at large in the culture that leach its human worth. To him, no amount of dissertations (he has a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts), shaggy stories or plain jokes can do as much as the show can.
“This country is complex and difficult to read,” he said. “There are subtle ways we see certain negatives reinforced for minorities and young people. The Village Voice five years ago had these black writers using curse words--deep four-letter stuff. How are they ever going to move over to the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal carrying clips of that corn-bread stuff? That’s reinforcing the negative. Another example: one critic of the show said it was unrealistic. ‘The problem is that they talk about college too much, which puts too much pressure on the kids.’ What do you think that reinforces? Is it that difficult for you to set a goal for yourself, or solve a math problem? When’s the last time we totally crumbled because we set a goal and couldn’t make it?
“It may seem I’m an authority because my skin color gives me the mark of the victim. But that’s not a true label. I won’t deal with the foolishness of racial overtones on the show. I base an awful lot of what I’ve done simply on what people will enjoy. I want to show a family that has a good life, not people to be jealous of.
“Run down what you saw of black people on TV before the Huxtables. You had ‘Amos n’ Andy,’ one of the funniest shows ever, people say. But who ever went to college? Who tried for better things? In ‘Good Times,’ J. J. Walker played a definite underachiever. In ‘Sanford & Son,’ you have a junk dealer living a few thousand dollars above the welfare level. ‘The Jeffersons’ move uptown. He owns a dry-cleaning store, lives in an integrated neighborhood. Where are the sociological writings about this?
“If August Wilson writes a play about a guy who’s abusing himself and people say it’s wonderful, what does that mean? I’m not criticizing August. One of the best things to hit Broadway was (Melvin Van Peebles’) ‘Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death.’ Pure, beautiful comedy and truth. But that’s not what my show is about. I agree with critics who say it doesn’t do enough. But the people who’re viewing it are having a ball with it. We get thank-you letters from all over the U.S., Canada and Europe. I know I’ve got to go a distance with it.”
By now the afternoon had dwindled into dusk; a faint light was all that was available now as he lit up another Macanudo and turned to the window. In half-lit profile, and wreathed in tendrils of cigar smoke, his face looked heavy, venerable, Egyptian.
“If what I’ve said sounds negative, there are still times when I feel freer than most people and I feel this is something we can work out. We can help each other.”
On the set the following day he rehearsed a segment of the show, a Cliff Huxtable dream sequence in which the males in the cast become pregnant (“Wait’ll the women see this at the taping,” he said, pointing his dummied-up big belly. “They’ll go through the roof.”)
Although he’s not the show’s director, he is its co-creator and executive producer and when he has something to contribute about a piece of staging, it goes into the action. Cosby has a well-developed theatrical sense (and as a comedic actor, an uncommonly mobile and expressive face). For example, he changed an entrance involving the men from a desultory shuffling in the front door to one in which their visible condition was kept hidden until the last instant, so that the audience would be surprised to see them. He knew that a sharp reaction from a live audience would heighten a similar reaction in an audience at home.
Afterward, in his dressing room, he called in a production assistant for a brainstorming session, in which she wrote down his ideas and suggestions in a notebook.
“I’m doing a new TV series about a couple in their 50s who break up after 29 years of marriage,” he explained. He popped a Betty Carter CD into a boom box; her swooping, vocal free-fall through a variety of tunes was the perfect accompaniment for his own improvisations.
“The series will be called ‘The Road Back.’ I want to write funny about a 50-year-old woman who has to take on jobs she does not want to do in order to keep going. This’ll be a sitcom, not a soap. I want to show someone who can keep on growing, without bitterness.” He asked about a Los Angeles writer who might be right to work on the idea with him. “Contact her,” he said to the assistant. “I want her given an opportunity. Fly her up to Vegas. We’ll work 24 hours a day.”
He caught up with a few phone messages and then called another assistant to make plans for an upcoming appearance in Augusta, and then a “Tonight Show” spot in Los Angeles (he flies on a private jet and also made sure that his airplane staff would have accommodations). Then he discussed yet another series idea “on the coal mining community in West Virginia. I want it to be from the point of view of a family, but also for it to include city and community politics. It’s called ‘Black Collar.’ I haven’t decided whether it’ll be set in 1949, in the day of the union leader John L. Lewis, or today. In sitcoms we’ve had enough of the sofa and the upstairs banister. I have about two tons of cassettes and film coming in to look at. Once again I’ll be working with psychiatrists to make sure that it’s emotionally accurate.”
At 8 o’clock the next morning, he drew a glass cup of espresso from a large, gleaming espresso machine. A pleasant, delicately mannered, somewhat elderly British maid laid out napkins, coffee accouterments and a carafe of mineral water on his living room table, and he sat down. He was dressed in off-white silk lounging pajamas and black velvet slippers embossed with the initial “C” and had the faintly dewy freshness of someone who’s just stepped out of a shower. In fact he’d been up since his 4:30 morning run, and still had the adrenal glow that translated into a willingness to discuss his daughter.
An Oct. 10 edition of the National Enquirer reported that Erinn Cosby had recently checked out of a drug rehab clinic after having been treated for alcohol and cocaine abuse. “Looking back,” she says in the article, “I can’t believe how Dad managed to go on with his show every week, portraying America’s favorite father while having a daughter like me causing so much pain.”
If she appeared contrite in print, Cosby said in the same article that he was offering her “tough love,” meaning that she was still on her own as far as he was concerned. He was angry.
“I’ll talk about it now,” he said brusquely. “An awful lot of people have called us on it. We have four other children. This particular daughter appears to be the only one who is really very selfish. It isn’t that we hang our heads or that we’re embarrassed by this, because we’ve been living with this person who knows that her problem isn’t cocaine or alcohol. I think that she’s a child who has refused to take responsibility for supporting herself.
“One of the things I said to her is that every child in this house can become whatever he or she wants to become, if they do it through college or university. Get your undergraduate degree and hopefully go on to graduate school. When you’re through at 27, you’re ready for whatever the world has to offer, and you can go into anything you want, psychology, anthropology, engineering, or being an artist. You don’t have to worry how you’ll pay your rent, or your car, or your food. You even get a paid vacation. Here are five children with an automatic support system, who receive encouragement and love, not to make money, but to get academic credentials and do whatever they want.
“But since 14, Erinn has always said, ‘I have to be me.’ Fine. When she graduated high school, I said, ‘Obviously you have a better idea of what you wanna be.’ She’s 23 now. She’s never held down a job, never kept an apartment for more than six months. She never finishes anything. She uses her boy friends. She wants the finer things but she can’t stand anybody else’s dirt, which is important. Developmentally, she’s still around 11 years old. The problem isn’t alcohol or drugs--at the rehab center her urine showed up negative. It’s behavioral. She’s very stubborn. It’s painful, not to me and Camille, but to her. It’s going to take her hitting rock bottom, where she’s totally exhausted and at that point where she can’t fight anymore.
“Right now we’re estranged. She can’t come here. She’s not a person you can trust. You think you’re not a good parent because you don’t answer the call. But you can’t let the kid use you.”
Cosby’s look at a different generation with a different experience led him to reflect on his own Philadelphia childhood. His father had studied for the seminary before giving up and joining the Navy. Cosby and his two brothers Russell (who now works for Delta Airlines) and Bob (who is a schoolteacher) were raised principally by their mother Anna, a disciplinarian who read to them from the Bible and Mark Twain. She infused in them a sense of pride, but the memory of growing up without much money is still so painful that he can’t use the words “poor” or “impoverished” to describe that period, substituting instead the sociologically neutral “lower economic people.”
“There is a want to get out,” he said slowly, speaking of the condition indirectly. “To get out of what? Of owing people. Of not being able to own anything. One of the biggest differences between lower-economic people and the middle class, who can shovel credit cards, is that the lower-economic people believe in buying something and paying for it. There’s so much taken from you, your phone, your TV, it’s embarrassing. You can’t get credit. One of the biggest things is layaway. But with advertising you see the things you can’t have. There’s a time of disliking, because you know you will never have. You’ll see people turn on what they can’t have.
“By the time I had made all my mistakes, quitting school and not paying attention to the people who told me to stick with it, I went into the service out of embarrassment. By 18 or 19, something should have happened to you, even in a lower economic neighborhood. It’s either working, college or the service. You do take great pride in not living off your parents. I got a job as a shoe repairman’s apprentice. Which I enjoyed. For a while I shined shoes, which means this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. I decided to go to night school, but it didn’t have the important trappings.”
He paused. “The truth is I’d just grown very tired of myself and thought perhaps there was a career for me in the service. If you stayed in for 20 years, you knew at least you’d get a certain amount of money for the rest of your life.”
Within four days of joining the Navy, Cosby knew he had made a mistake. But he stuck out his term, working as a physical therapist at Philadelphia Naval Hospital; the job began to take him out of himself. “I had a fellow who crashed his jet. He lost his left arm. An eye was gone. He had skin grafted from his thigh to the top of his head. He had a beautiful wife. ‘How long is this beautiful woman gonna stay with this ugly man,’ we wondered, out of our shallow projections on to them. We didn’t realize how much love could mean. I bet they’re still married.
“I wondered what my life would be like if I had no eyes, or was a quadriplegic. I exercised people, stroke victims, a little girl with polio, a priest who’d lost his leg. I could feel the power of healing, which I took on as a personal power trip. There was a guy who had a paralyzed arm. My job was to exercise it and convince him that his brain could make it work. I was making myself out to be a faith healer. When the guy got movement and started to cry and thank me, I realized I’d better get my personality out of this. ‘Don’t thank me,’ I said. ‘Thank God. And yourself.’ ”
After his tour with the Navy was up, he enrolled at Temple, a for-once happy time for him. “I was reading, writing, challenging, exploring. I was secure in knowing I’d graduate and had my act together. I was playing football and running track.” If the lack of finances once again temporarily intervened, he knew at least he’d outgrown the Germantown of his childhood, where his family was forced to move from place to place. One of the things he remembered as a childhood saving grace was the radio.
“You had ‘The Lone Ranger,’ ‘The Shadow,’ ‘Lights Out’ and ‘Inner Sanctum,’ but I always listened for the comedy: Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen. Then of course with television you had ‘The Colgate Comedy Hour.’ When comedy was on, I was just happy to be alive. I didn’t realize then that I was studying these people without a place to play out what I’d learned. When I went to work as a bartender to help with school, I understood that if people enjoy conversation with the bartender, they leave tips. So I began collecting jokes, and learning how to work them up, stretch them out. For as long as you have the joke, you know you have the security that people will laugh. Flip Wilson is a prime example of a comedian who is wonderful at extended storytelling, with its imagery and loveliness that become funnier than the punch line.”
Cosby began working local gigs, then moved up to New York’s Greenwich Village to work the Gaslight in the wake of the comedy wave formed by Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Shelly Berman and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Shortly after that his befuddled Noah asked God the question no one in America had ever heard answered: “What’s a cubit?” He was on his way.
Around the corner and up the street from his townhouse, the crowd on Third Avenue walked briskly by a camera store, spurred on by the nippy air. In the window hung a life-size poster of Cosby proffering a Kodak camera, chest-high. His mouth was drawn in that familiar embouchure-like smile and his eyes held that faintly conspiratorial cleverness that unfailingly suggests that we’re in on the joke, even if we don’t know quite what the joke is. It’s the expression by which America has been charmed for 25 years and the thing most familiar about him, but few would know it as a mere facet of a complex man.