Bill Cosby is an entertainer who has become somewhat of an elder statesman in the African-American community. His popularity has transcended race and he is well-respected throughout the show business world.
William Henry Cosby, Jr., was born in Philadelphia on July 12,1937, the oldest of four boys. His mother Anna worked as a maid and his father William, Sr. was largely absent throughout his childhood, so he was raised in an economically-disadvantaged situation. Intelligent and athletically-gifted, young “Bill” was well liked by his fellow students in school, but he frustrated his teachers by clowning around. Though he dropped out of high school later to join the Navy, he earned his diploma by taking a correspondence course. After a four year stint in the Navy Hospital Corps, he was able to score a track-and-field scholarship to Temple University.
Bill’s comedic talents were honed, believe it or not, when he took a bartending job at a club called The Underground for extra money while he attended college. He stood in for the usual comedian whenever the guy missed gigs and started such a buzz that invitations from other clubs came, asking him to perform a set at their establishments. His comedy was built around humorous retellings of his personal experiences and his own observations about life. Due to his budding success, Bill made the decision, during his sophomore year, to quit college and pursue a stand-up comedy career. This definitely did not sit well with his parents, especially his mother, who believed that education was paramount in importance.
Still in his early 20’s, Bill continued to make headway by making hit comedy records and appearing on television variety programs, such as The Ed Sullivan Show. His humor was different from more militant African-American comedians of the time, like Dick Gregory, whose comedy touched on racial issues and society ills. Bill’s humor was gentle, clean and devoid of any reference to race, making him somewhat non-threatening to predominantly white audiences.
His first major break came in 1965, when he got the role of Alexander “Scotty” Scott on the television show I Spy. It was an important accomplishment in that it was one of the first times an African-American man was in a co-starring role on a prime-time television drama and the first time an African-American male character was presented as equal in intelligence to the white characters on the show. References to his race were not even mentioned on the show.
In 1969, he had his own series, The Bill Cosby Show, in which he played a P.E. teacher and following that, created a Saturday morning animated cartoon based on his childhood pals, the inimitable Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. He used the show as a vehicle for teaching subtle moral and ethical lessons to young viewers.
To please his mother, Bill earned his undergrad degree from Temple University in 1971 and went on to earn a Ph.D from the University of Massachusetts in 1977. He wanted to set an example for young people, especially young African-Americans, to persuade them that getting a good education is important.
He had only moderate success in films,with the exception of a couple of movies he co-starred in with Sidney Poitier- Uptown Saturday Night and Let’s Do It Again. After being absent from the television scene, Cosby came back in a major way with a second show that was also titled The Cosby Show, but was far more successful than his first series of the same name. The show was loosely based on his own experiences with his wife and children. He played the role of ob/gyn Dr. Cliff Huxtable, married to lawyer Clare, warmly portrayed by actress Phylicia Rashad. Each episode focused on how they dealt with their brood of five children. The show became a huge hit, introducing audiences to the world of educated, well-to-do African-Americans, not customarily depicted on television. The CosbyShow ran from 1984 to 1992. He also produced A Different World, a comedy series about students at a historically African-American university. In 1998, he hosted Kids Say the Darndest Things,an updated version of the old Art Linkletter show of the same name, for four seasons.
Bill Cosby’s life has not always run so smoothly. He experienced tragedy with his son Ennis was murdered in 1997 while changing a tire on the freeway. He has been hit with paternity claims, as well as by claims that he sexually assaulted 20 women and one man, but nothing was ever proven nor were any criminal charges filed.
He has continued to write books and do comedy concerts. In recent years, he has participated in public forums and gotten both praise and criticism when he blasted the African-American community for what he saw as its failure to be personally accountable for high crime rates, single parent homes and lack of education.
Bill Cosby became an honoree at the Kennedy Center awards in 1998 and remains a true American icon.