In 1965 Bill Cosby needed some money in a hurry, and I was happy to oblige. The circumstances, obviously, require explanation
Cosby's career had just taken off. He was in Cleveland to co-host "The Mike Douglas Show" and he was preparing to star in his first television series, "I Spy," which would go into production in the spring. His wife, Camille, who was pregnant with their first child, was with him in Cleveland, where the Douglas folks surprised him by flying in Robert Culp, who'd be his co-star on "I Spy."
Cosby was gracious throughout our interview, which started at the KYW-TV studio and ended in his hotel room, where I met Mrs. Cosby. But Cosby also was distracted because Culp also was on his way to the hotel from the studio, and the two men wanted to be alone to discuss "I Spy." Cosby didn't tell me the reason, but I sensed he and Culp were unhappy about the script for the first episode and wanted to compare notes so they could put up a united front when they returned to Los Angeles to begin filming.
Turned out Culp had written a script and the two men wanted to convince the powers that be not only to film it, but to use it as the show's first episode. Neither was happy with the pilot film they had done. Cosby told me he thought the "I Spy" premise allowed for some comedy, but he termed the series pilot one of the unfunniest things he had ever done.
As things turned out, "I Spy" did indeed open with an episode written by Culp, one entitled "So Long, Patrick Henry." The series about two government spies posing as a tennis player and his trainer ran three seasons. Cosby, who played the trainer, Alexander Scott, won a best actor Emmy each season.
Anyway, while waiting for Culp, Cosby called room service and ordered something for Camille. Culp's arrival signaled my departure, but room service showed up before I could leave. Confusion ruled, momentarily. Culp had Cosby's attention while the room service delivery boy and I stood around, looking at each other. That's when Cosby turned around and asked if I could tip the room service guy . . . which I did. Seconds later I was on my way back to Akron.
ALL HELL has broken loose since I wrote this piece for the website. Cosby has been accused of rape by several women whose allegations go back to incidents they say happened many years ago. So far the comedian-turned-actor-turned-holier than thou expert on parenting has ducked every question that has been raised about the accusations.
At this point (November 21, 2014) it appears that Cosby's reputation and his career, such as it has been recently, are both going down the tubes. The only reason I am not surprised by the whole affair is because one thing that was driven home to me early on in my career, such as it was, is that no entertainer is what he or she seems to be.
However, Cosby's fall from grace is unusually disappointing because while the man may be a despicable sexist pig and rapist, as charged, the performer rarely faltered.
RECENTLY I SAW a cable documentary on black comedians and can't help but feel the program's writers and participants missed a point or two about Cosby's early success. When I met Cosby, in January, 1965, he found himself in the position of being compared a lot with Dick Gregory, then touted by the white press as a black pioneer of comedy. Much of Gregory's humor was based on his race and how it shaped his view of the world. Cosby took another approach. He explored the common ground. His humor was universal, not controversial. I'm sure this may have hurt his his standing among black activists.
He indicated to me at the time that comparisons with Dick Gregory bugged him. "Most of the stories about me turn out to be big plugs from Gregory," he told me. "I'm not saying I'm funnier than Gregory, but I am different."
I was drawn to Cosby's humor because a lot of it in those days was based on sports. He had attended Philadelphia's Temple University on a football scholarship and incorporated that experience into his early monologues. ("Our team was so bad that we had to play the spectators at halftime because it was our only chance to win a game. We cut that out the day the spectators beat us.")
MY FAVORITE parts of his early comedy routines were about shared experiences – like playing touch football in the street, with its complicated plays ("Jim, you cut to the right, duck behind the Chevy, count to five and button hook behind the Buick ..."), and something that turned out to be a lot more common than I realized – keeping a large jug of water in the refrigerator. We did that in our house and my father and I constantly defied my mother's orders not to drink directly from that bottle, but to pour our water into a glass. My dad and I simply didn't have the patience to do that. Young Bill Cosby also used to drink from the bottle, on the sly, of course.
Also, Cosby's Fat Albert character rang true. As children, we all knew someone like that.
As years went by, Cosby became the national father figure. Parenthood inspired his most enduring comedy, particularly his in-concert film, "Bill Cosby: Himself" (1983) and the incredibly popular TV series that followed, "The Cosby Show" (1984-92) for which he created the Huxtable family.
Cosby's views on parenting have ruffled some feathers. He has been critical of African-Americans for not imparting to their children a higher moral purpose and a better understanding of history. The same could be said, of course, about all parents in a society where children are revered more than they are disciplined.
But now Cosby's views are irrelevant. We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out, but the man stands on the brink of being exposed as one of the most arrogant hypocrites of our time. I'd plead, "Say it isn't so, Bill," but evidence to the contrary keeps piling up.