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Bill Cosby: the doctor is in.

A party-time mood buoys the racially mixed audience watching "The Bill Cosby Show" Being taped inside the NBC studios in Brooklyn, New York--despite a tedious string of takes and retakes. The reason for the spectators' mirth? The star's penchant for improvisation has turned the rest of the cast into cackling groupies. Finally Bill Cosby, greeted by applause and hoots, steps into the darkened portion of the set to admonish the onlookers. A spotlight illuminates him. "Stop laughing," he says. "I'm doing it all wrong and you're just encouraging me." The crowd breaks up once more and Cosby returns to the scene and plays it the same as before--only this time the actors hold themselves together and go with the Cos. It's the best take yet.

The following afternoon finds Cosby hunched under a gray baseball cap in the back booth of a dimly lit Greenwich Village coffee shop, his fingers drumming an irregular beat on the tabletop in time with the cool jazz filtering through the cafe's stereo system. A large man, Cosby's is a presence to reckon with. Even the most self-absorbed New Yorkers stops to stare at Cosby's face, a face that shelves an encyclopedia of comical expressions. A waiter carrying a tray above his head turns the corner and, noticing Cosby, does a double take that causes him to spill the dishes. "That's not funny," says Cosby, the master of the deadpan. "Now do it again and make it funny." It's the waiter's turn to laugh now.

Bill Cosby, at 47 years old, is not the avuncular, joke-a-minute sort you might expect him to be, based on his numerous comedy albums and those ingratiating commercials for Jell-O pudding. He is, instead, a sagacious, serious fellow, a man of many interests and strong opinions, who speaks slowly and chooses his words carefully. His observations come forth in a folksy manner, much like the stories of Mark Twain, full of truths of human behavior that teach as well as tickle--emphasized, of course, by Cosby's patented mug.

At the moment, Cosby is ensconced in the role of concerned parent as he discusses the domestic troubles that inspired his return to television, troubles that began several years ago when he and his wife, Camille, purchased a "dish" antenna that brought 25 different TV channels into their Massachusetts home--much to the immediate delight of their five children. "But we created a new problem," Cosby explains. "It was no longer that they were watching too much television. Instead, we had to monitor the content of the shows."

What passed for entertainment on the airwaves was of special interest to William Henry Cosby, Ed. D., whose 242-page dissertation examined television as an aid to learning. He found little educational value in the gaggle of shows his new antenna plucked from orbiting satellities. "My kids, if unmonitored, could watch four different movies showing cars smashing, people getting drunk and sex without permission as entertainment," Cosby says. Dr. Cosby thus prescribed no more television: "We told the children that later on in life, when we are very old and cannot take care of ourselves, they could beat us up for not letting them watch."

Cosby didn't put himself in a position like the patriot Patrick Henry and holler at the network brass: "Give me better programming or give me death." Cosby, instead, chose to lead by example and decided to return to television, after an eight-year absence, with a series of his own, much like a parent who joins the PTA and hopes he can make a difference. "It was cheaper to do a series than to throw out my family's TV sets," he says. But CBS and ABC turned him down. "I walked in at a bad time," he says, "because everybody in the gray suits and paisley ties said that, according to marketing reports, sitcoms were over.

"So here I come, with all these marketing negatives: a black family that is not going to be of the street-level humor; a wife who's a professional person; five children; and a show that deals with the human behavior of the people in the series more than making up situations so the breasts can come out and the pants can come down."

The third time was the charm. NBC finally gave Cosby the go-ahead, and what he developed is an absolutely fetching sitcom. "The Cosby Show," ranked consistently among the ten most popular programs and watched each week by an estimated 38.3 million people, is this season's prime-time sensation, a dignified jewel among half-hour duds. No one is more pleased than the man listed on the show's credits as creator, producter, writer and star. "I'm pleasantly surprised at the show's success," Cosby says with a grin. "I was just hoping it could stay on, because I have so much to give."

An insightfully funny portrait of an upper-middle-class family and their five children, "The Cosby Show" is crammed with the sort of amusing fancies and foibles of contemporary family life that spark a smile of instant recognition among viewers. "The show is really a love story to people," Cosby says. "It's about what I studied for at the university; it's about my gratitude that I finally woke up as a youngster and went to college; and it's about my love for telling and writing stories. Most of all, though, it's entertainment for the entire family."

The show breaks new ground in television because it transcends questions of race and concentrates on the people themselves. Cosby himself emphasizes that the show has nothing to do with black people on television. "My point is," he says, "that they are black and you can see it. We don't have to tell anybody. What we are telling everyone is that we are human beings, and we have all the same wants and needs that everyone else has."

The message is strong and forceful, like the man himself. But then this is Cosby's show, totally. It's his idea. He contributed to the casting of the actors who make up his TV family. He selected paintings by Varnette Honeywood, a black artist whose work is in Cosby's own home, to hang on the walls of the set. And he frequently contributes ideas to the show's writers; he draws on his experience as husband and parent to make certain the show resembles situations encountered by real families. "He never will let something just go by," says Caryn Sneider, one of the show's producers. "He works very hard to make each moment special."

More revealing of the man, however, is that "The Cosby Show" is about as close a look at his personal life as the extremely private Cosby has ever allowed. He even acknowledges that the series is almost a mirror image of his own family--his wife of 20 years, whom he met on a blind date when she was a psych major at the University of Maryland; his daughters Erika, 19, Erinn, 18, Ensa, 11, Evin, 8, and his son Ennis, 5. Cosby finds this only natural. "This is what I know best," he says. "Family and kids. But you have to understand that the show would not be this successful if my life wasn't so much like the lives of so many human beings.

"Look, we're all dealing with the same problems. Parents, regardless of what color they are, or how much money they have, perceive themselves as people who work hard and have wisdom to hand down, and they see their children as people who repel hard work and wisdom. Understand that I have wealth and fame, and I have found it's impossible to buy a kid who's going to do homework. And it's nearly as hard to find a kid who's going to return a car with a full tank of gas."

Such Cosbyisms have their origin in the North Philadelphia ghetto where Cosby grew up. His father, a career Navy man, separated from his wife during Cosby's youth. Cosby himself was a restless child. "I played my whole youth," he says, "and every day I'm sorry for it." Though his mother stressed the importance of education, Cosby dropped out of the tenth grade, an admitted mistake. "I had hit the bottom--I was out of school, I could get a job and go party--and it really wasn't any fun." The big turnaround came after Cosby enlisted in the Navy and found himself awakened at four in the morning by a snarling chief petty officer clanging a stick in a metal trash can. "I knew then and there that there were alternatives to this life," he says. The one Cosby chose was a high-school-equivalency degree via a service correspondence course and then three years at Temple University on an athletic scholarship.

Performing before an audience wasn't always in Cosby's plans. Many years ago he fell in love with jazz music and seriously considered becoming a drummer. Cosby still composes music, like the opening theme to his show, and counts among his close friends the musical legends Dizzy Gillepie and Miles Davis. He also thought about playing professional football after the New York Giants offered him a tryout. And then for a long time he wanted to teach junior high school. But, eventually, the young, street-wise Cosby yielded to his aching funny bone and moved to New York to launch a show-biz career. "I think that no matter what career I would have chosen--medicine, law or teaching--I would have inevitably gone into performing," he says.

The decision was, obviously, the correct one. Thanks to more record sales than any other comedian's (and eight Grammys), numerous movie roles, two previous TV series and his ubiquitous presence as a commercial pitchman, Cosby is a millionaire many times over. He resides in princely fashion with his family in a 19th-century farmhouse on more than 200 acres near Amherst, Massachusetts. (The house was completely renovated by Camille and filled with the antique furniture and American art that are their passions.) "The Cosby Show" is produced in Brooklyn so Cosby can remain close to his family. He lives in a midtown-Manhattan brownstone during the week and returns weekeneds to the ongoing love story he shares with his wife. "To see her face, to hug her, to see her laugh and smile, it's the only way that I know I want to feel," he says. As for parenting their large brood, Cosby says both he and Camille are "committed to not giving up."

The seed that led Bill Cosby into another weekly TV series began germinating long ago. In the late '60s, Cosby resumed his education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After seven years of course work and practice teaching at prisons and on "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company," plus a fat dissertation, he stepped forward in his hooded gown and accepted a sheep-skin as "Doctor of Education." "I did it because I had something to say about Orwell, 1984, and the fact that I felt we could use the television set to help educate people," says Cosby.

This new show seems to be just what the doctor ordered. Through humor, the only medicine he's allowed to dispense, Cosby hopes he might be able to teach people an important lesson, that things like "segregation, sexism and racism are ways that we only set ourselves back," in Cosby's words.

And Cosby is already hearing positive response to his hilarious half hour of humanity. People have written him that the show is a time the entire family gathers around the TV set to watch; others have written that they've changed their day off in order to catch the show. This is exactly the type of response Cosby is seeking:

"I want to put a show on the air that people feel good about, one that they can be proud of and identify with, and, most important, a show where children can laugh at the behavior of parents and parents can laugh at the behavior of children."

The funny thing is, Cosby is doing just that. So let's all be thankful the doctor has decided to make a house call.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Gold, Todd
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1985
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