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Bill Cosby: prime time's favorite father.


Just when television seemedbleaker than ever, he appeared on prime time with his unique talents: the mastery of stand-up comedy, the passion of a parent, the wisdom of Solomon. Just when industry executives were prophesying the death of the half-hour comedy, he revived it with the healing powers of a fairground evangelist. Just when it seemed that televison had become a hopeless abyss of tasteless jokes, violence, and sex, he rescued the idea of family entertainment. Just when television seemed most unfunny, he turned a half-hour each week into 30 minutes of laugher.

He is Bill Cosby, 48, and he returnedto television just in time. Three years ago, when Cosby got the idea for a weekly comedy series about a black American family living in a Manhattan brown-stone, he was simply a superstar entertainer with a message to relay. The so-called experts told him no--as in "no way." It seemed absurd to them that he wanted to star in a show that mirrred reality, that avoided abusive or vulgar language. They couldn't picture a family show in which kids learn that parents can be very strict and yet full of love, or that parents can learn from their children. Two networks said it couldn't be done; a third, NBC, gave "The Cosby Show" the go-ahead. That was all Bill Cosby needed.

In only its second season, "TheCosby Show" has become America's highest rated weekly television series. For nearly 60 million people, this charming and insightful half-hour comedy is a Thursday-night ritual, a humorous excursion into the trenches of parenting, a world once described as a "domestic war zone." And despite what the experts feared, says Cosby, riding a wave of success that's gone well beyond anyone's expectations, "it turns out there's a very large number of people who have settled into what we're doing and love it." Why? Probably because Cosby's vision of family life, a bittersweet existence of equal parts chaos and calm, strikes so close to so many homes.

On the air, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable,a wise, affable obstetrician, is married to his beautiful lawyer wife, Clair, and father to their five high-spirited children. Offscreen, Dr. William Henry Cosby, a wise affable comedian, is married to his beautiful wife, Camille, and father to their five high-spirited children. The similarity is purposeful. "My family life is the behavior I know best," says Cosby, who maintains that parents all share similar experiences. "For instance, one of the things I found out is that no matter how much money a parent has, you can't buy a kid who's going to do schoolwork."

It's clear through the programquality alone that "The Cosby Show? is a labor of love by one of this generation's master standup comedians, an entertainer who certainly didn't need the grind of a weekly television series. A multimillionaire long ago, Cosby, in more than 20 years of performing, has amassed a library of work that includes 20 comedy albums, 5 TV series, 10 movies, and a small Fort Knox of Grammy and Emmy awards, among others.

Though he didn't need thework, Cosby the philosopher was interested in exploring the behavior of parents toward children. "Regardless of race or social status, parents perceive themselves as people who work hard and have wisdom to hand down to their children," Cosby says. "And they all see their children as these brain-damaged people who repel wisdom."

What he delivers is a show about ahusband and wife who love each other and love their children, people who care about imparting old-fashioned values simply because "they have read yesterday's newspaper," as Cosby is fond of saying. "That's really why people watch the show--because of the family."

With razor-sharp comedic insight,Cosby dips into the mother lode of the parental condition, often with mixed emotions. Carefully moving through heaps of dirty clothing scattered in his son's room, Heathcliff asks, "Hard to find good help, isn't it?" When the kids are impudent, the father quickly snaps: "I am your father.... I brought you into this world and I'll take you out." Or, celebrating his parents' anniversary, dad tells his son not to take the piece of cake he wants--only to have his own father scold, "Cliff, you don't tak food from a child., Heathcliff immediately retorts, "Why? He does it to me." The laughs are universal. Says Cosby: "The styles of cars and clothing change, but parents still deal with the same issues they did 30 or 40 years ago. A kid turns 16 and it's, 'Dad, can I have the car?' Nothing has really changed about human behavior."

It's not just because he holds anEd.D. in education that Cosby is trying to educate viewers. It's that he learned the hard way. Born in Philadelphia on July 12, 1937, he was the eldest of three sons. The captain of the track and the football teams at Germantown High School, he was an excellent athlete but a miserable student. Dropping out after his sophomore year, Cosby joined the navy, earned a high-school diploma through correspondence courses, and then enrolled in Temple University on a track scholarship. Three years later, he quit school, this time to pursue a career in comedy. But later Cosby completed his degree at Temple and went on to receive a master's and a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts.

Married for 22 years to the formerCamille Hanks, whom he met on a blind date, Cosby has a philosophy about making marriage work. "If you can't stand each other, get out," he says. "But if you really love each other, then you can make up for your faults. I don't think anybody's perfect. And I think one of the realities after years of marriage is that whatever changes you had planned to make in that person are going to happen slowly or not happen at all. But the important thing is--do you really love that person?" And his own marriage is better than ever. "My wife, Camille, and I are enjoying each other more and more, mostly because in the past 8 or 9 years, I've given up all of myself to her," Cosby said in a recent interview. "And what happened was that I found myself falling deeper and deeper in love with her."

Although Cosby is now beloved asmuch for his paternal philosophizing as he was for the sweet childishness of his Fat Albert cartoon character, he refuses to rate himself as a parent. "The only thing I can say is: If I can maintain what I feel is fair, if I can show the children love, then they cannot argus," he explains. "You know, when I first became a parent," he continued in a recent interview, "I had certain ideas about how I was going to control the children, and they all boiled down to this: Children just need love.

"Well, some years later, youfind yourself talking to your child, who is of high intelligence, and saying, 'No, you cannot drice the car until you get a learner's permit.' And then, ten minutes later, you see your car being driven down the street by the same child you just told not to drive it. When the child gets back and gets out of the car, you have the following conversation: 'Was that you driving the car?' 'Yes.' 'Why?' 'Well, I just wanted to see if I could do it.' 'But didn't I tell you not to drive it?' 'Yes.' 'Well, if I told you not to drive the car, why were you driving it?' 'I don't know.' Well, to me, that's brain damage. All children have that kind of brain damage. Parents should prepare themselves to face that fact."

Anyone familiar with Cosby'swork over the past decade realizes that his humorous homilies on family life are drawn from a vast reservoir of experience as a father. "That's what I know best," he often says. In their 19th-century Massachusetts farmhouse, Cosby and his wife attempt to raise their wily family (their daughters Erika, 20, Erin, 19, Ensa, 12, Evin, 9, and their son, Ennis, 16) in the sort of academic environment parents encourage and kids develop allergies to. That's why Cosby admits to occassonally raising this voice in frustration, like a football coach whose team is losing against one it's favored to beat handily.

Even though Cosby acknowledgesthat lecturing a child is sometimes no better than talking to a wall, he is presently writing a book about how to be a father, due out around Father's Day. Does he profess to being a expert dad? "Ask me anything, I've got the answer," Cosby said recently. However, such answers tend to encompass a gamut of parental tactics from love to "outright bribery in the form of cold cash" to moving speeches on racial pride.

And when even that doesn't work? ThenCosby falls back on a bit of sage but sneaky wisdom. It was told him years ago by his own father when they were playing in the yard and the teenage Cosby discovered he was quicker than his dad. "I was feeling all cocky, and he just looked me in the eye and said, 'You gotta sleep sometime,'" Cosby says, laughing. "My son is 6'4", and I'm not far from letting him know that he can get as big as he wants to, but he has to sleep sometime."

Sometimes Cosby rubs people thewrong way, but he always makes a point that demands consideration. Like a father, he reprimands and instructs. He knows all to well what sometimes the more he exhorts his children to go in one direction, the more likely they are to move in the opposite direction. He knows that people aren't perfect. Bill Cosby isn't perfect either. However, he is teaching us a lot about life, love, and laughter.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Klein, Todd
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1986
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