[Editor’s Note:* Before all the Jello and the Huxtables, Bill Cosby was in the thick of the civil rights movement as an up-and-coming black comedian fighting for his right to the limelight. Forget the lovable father figure, the goofy faces and kids saying the darnedest things; this 1969 incarnation of Cosby is controversial, outspoken and true to his roots.] *
“The fact that I’m not trying to win converts bugs some people, but I don’t think an entertainer can. I’ve never known any white bigot to pay to see a black man, unless the black man was being hung.”
“I was hoping to become a schoolteacher. Chicks would put that down. There’s probably girls today think, ‘I sold Bill Cosby short at $12, and now he’s $432 a share. Damn.’”
“Rap Brown and all the other militants speak the truth when they tell America that the black man is not going to take any more bullshit; we’ve been here 300 years and we’ve had it with waiting.”
During this decade, no comedian – black or white – has come close to achieving the superstardom Bill Cosby has fashioned for himself in the short space of seven years. At 31, he commands a fee of $50,000 a week for nightclub dates; and on concert tours, he often earns three times that figure. Cosby has also vaulted to the top of two industries: He won four consecutive Grammys for his comedy albums and three Emmys in a row for his co-starring role as secret agent Alexander Scott on NBC’s I Spy, his first attempt at acting. In 1967, Cosby recorded two albums of rhythm-and-blues vocals, with the perhaps predictable result that one of his cuts, Little Old Man, was a top pop hit for more than two months. And in April of this year, Cosby began filming his first movie, a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, in which he enacts the comic gangster role originally played by Robert Montgomery. So great is the demand for his services that NBC recently signed him to a five-year contract that will net him anywhere from $15 million to $50 million; it calls for, among other things, an annual Cosby TV special, two cartoon specials based on his subteen superheroes, Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold, and The Bill Cosby Show, beginning next fall, in which he will be featured each week as a San Francisco schoolteacher who moonlights as a detective.
Speaking of moonlighting, Cosby is also becoming as adept an executive as he is an entertainer. He and business partners Roy Silver and Bruce Campbell are assembling an entertainment conglomerate, based in Beverly Hills, whose net worth has already approached the $50 million mark. Among their properties: a record company (Tetragrammaton, which released the controversial John Lennon-Yoko Ono LP Two Virgins, featuring a frontal nude photo of the loving couple), a cartoon-animation studio, a public-relations firm, a talent-management corporation, a projected chain of Fat Albert hamburger stands and a motion-picture-production company that already has a five-film, $12 million contract with Warner Bros.-Seven Arts.
To everyone’s surprise but his own, Cosby’s emergence as a one-man industrial giant has had no adverse effect on his personality. On stage and off, he is informal, unpretentious and, to use his favorite adjective, cool. Married, the father of two daughters and with another child on the way, Cosby maintains that he’s perfectly willing to sire as many as 20 girls before he stops trying for a son. The Cosbys live in a huge Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills, where Bill spends a good deal of time informally entertaining friends, most of whom, like trumpeter Miles Davis and Boston Celtic player-coach Bill Russell, are either black entertainers or black athletes.
Sports are a prime passion of his: Cosby watches as many televised football games as his wife will put up with and, during the year, plays charity exhibitions with a pickup basketball team – often on behalf of local black groups – throughout the Los Angeles area. No stranger to ghetto residents, Cosby gets a special kick out of working with youth. He sponsored a group of young Watts musicians in 1967, called them the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and featured them as accompanists on a couple of his TV guest shots. To Cosby, it represents the way he can – and does – help other black people. His prospects in life not too many years ago, as he himself is the first to point out, were even dimmer than those of the Watts group before he aided them.
The eldest of three sons, Bill was born on July 12, 1937, in an area of Philadelphia that Time interviews once christened The Jungle. Bill’s boyhood was typical of many a black youth’s: He shined shoes, played street football and schoolyard basketball, took part in teen-gang wars and compiled a lackluster academic record from the moment he set foot in school (“William would rather clown than study,” his sixth-grade teacher noted on a report card Cosby now keeps framed in his home). At Germantown High School, he was captain of the track and football teams, which took up most of his time; after he had to repeat his 10th year because of poor grades, Bill dropped out of school to join the Navy as a medical corpsman. “I read the Geneva convention and it says you can’t shoot a medic,” he explained later. “And we were very popular – first thing wounded guys in the field would shout was ‘Medic!’ ‘What do you want?’ I’d ask. ‘My leg! My leg!’ ‘Sorry, but I don’t make house calls.’”
All his kidding aside, Cosby felt that the military life was largely a waste of time. “The thing I really hated,” he recently recalled, “is that a guy with one stripe more than another cat thinks he has the power of God over him – and he does. After my first few days in the Navy, I knew I’d have to make it as a civilian. And for that, I needed an education.” Accordingly, Cosby enrolled in correspondence courses conducted by the Navy and soon earned a high school diploma. Just before his tour of duty was completed, he competed for the Navy in a track meet at Villanova University. Gavin White, at that time the track coach of Villanova’s city rival, Temple University, was in the stands that afternoon. Cosby was introduced to White and asked if Temple would consider offering him a track scholarship when he got out of the Navy. White replied that it could be arranged, and it was.
A versatile college athlete, Cosby participated in more than a half-dozen events for Temple’s track team, winning the Middle Atlantic Conference’s high-jump competition with a leap of six feet and running the 100-yard dash in 10.2 seconds. As a second-string fullback on the varsity football squad, he was scouted for the New York Giants by Emlen Tunnell, who rated him as having a good chance to make the National Football League as a defensive safety.
Cosby decided to earn spending money by taking a job tending bar in a small downtown Philly cocktail lounge, where his comedy career began – inadvertently – when he found himself entertaining customers to pass the time. After trying out a few bits at campus parties, Bill did occasional stand-up routines in other bars and, on weekends, would journey up to New York’s Greenwich Village in search of better-paying gigs, where he finally landed a $60-a-week job at the Gaslight Club in the summer of 1962. By autumn, Cosby was commuting regularly from Philadelphia to New York for weekend appearances in Village clubs. It wasn’t long before comedy and college became incompatible. “Bill wanted to travel to a football game in Ohio by himself,” recalls Temple athletic director Ernie Casale. “He couldn’t make the team flight because of a show-business commitment. I told him that, realistically, he’d soon have to choose between Temple and show business. He made the choice right there and then.”
Though he made the right decision, he wasn’t too sure at the time; his mother didn’t want him to leave college, and neither did he. “But I was making as much as $300 on weekends,” he remembers, “and even though I wasn’t sure how long it would last, I was determined to see it out.” By 1963, Cosby had graduated to top Village spots such as The Bitter End; and that summer, Allan Sherman, who was guest-hosting the Tonight show for vacationing Johnny Carson, caught his act and put him on network TV for the first time. A few weeks after that, Sherman co-produced Cosby’s first album, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! His career has been straight up ever since.
Over the years, Bill has been the subject of a series of limpid interviews; perhaps with the misguided intention of boosting a black comic who wasn’t skewering whites on stage, writers and editors have often deleted his more trenchant off-stage observations about the black man’s place in America – almost to the point of making him seem an Uncle Tom. As a result, he roundly dislikes the press. “One interviews sent a guy out to spend three or four days with me. That cat and I talked for hours about what’s happening to black people in this country, and I couldn’t wait to see the issue. But it was really stupid, man. They were more interested in showing me playing basketball with my press agent than in what I had to say.”
In an effort to reveal the real Cosby, Playboy dispatched Associate Editor Lawrence Linderman to accompany him on a series of one-night stands in the Midwest. Reports Linderman: “Cosby’s life is incredibly departmentalized; aside from his personal appearances, he’s constantly hopping across the country to show up for business conferences, TV guest shots, his friends' first nights and assorted film commitments. This schedule literally knocks him out. It isn’t unusual to walk into Cosby’s dressing room between performances and find him dozing in a straight-backed chair, a long-dead cigar propped between his lips. He stays that way until it’s time to go on, then snaps awake instantly and gets himself ‘up’ on the way to the stage. Once there, he turns on and works as hard – physically – as any comedian I’ve ever seen. But the most impressive thing about watching Cosby perform is to realize how wide the appeal of his humor has become: The same routines that make him a hit in Harlem’s Apollo go over just as big with all-white crowds in Las Vegas and Des Moines.” The universality of Cosby’s comedy provided the opening for our interview.
Playboy: Both fans and critics often call your humor “color-blind.” Do you think that’s an accurate description?
Cosby: Well, I think there are some people who are disappointed when I don’t tell my audiences that white people are mistreating black people. White critics will write about Cosby not doing any racial material, because they think that now is the time for me to stand up and tell my audiences what color I am and what’s going on in America. But I don’t see these people knocking the black elevator man in their building just because he isn’t doing anything for civil rights by running that elevator; it wouldn’t sell newspapers or interviewss. The fact that I’m not trying to win converts on stage bugs some people, but I don’t think an entertainer can win converts. I’ve never known any kind of white bigot to pay to see a black man, unless the black man was being hung. So I don’t spend my hours worrying how to slip a social message into my act; I just go out and do my thing.
Playboy: How would you describe it?
Cosby: My humor isn’t jokes as much as situations. I tell stories and play the characters in those stories, like the one I wrote for you guys. This isn’t something that came to me overnight. I don’t think I hit my stride until my third album; up until then, I’d been doing what amounted to cartoon ideas. Some of my humor comes straight out of the newspapers, in a way. Take Noah and the ark. I once read about a mass murder; and when they captured the guy and asked him why he did it, he said, “The voice told me to do it.” You’d be surprised at how many killings there are where a guy hears a voice that says, “Take up thy rifle, go out and slay!” Now, this is a country built on Christianity; if a guy sees a bolt of lightning, hears a crack of thunder and then a voice saying, “Go and smite thine enemies!” – which was always happening in the Bible – how many cats do you know who wouldn’t go along with it? So I started to think about what would happen today if a guy was told by the voice to go build an ark. First of all, he’d doubt that the voice was real. So there’s got to be conversation between him and the voice. Second, what are the neighbors going to think? And third, no rain has been falling and it’s hard to build an ark, so Noah, who’s a totally rational man, is going to be angry at himself for doing it. As he’s hammering away, he’s going to be thinking, “What the hell am I building an ark for?”
Playboy: The recorded version of your Noah story is a tightly constructed and highly polished comedy routine; yet during nightclub performances – as with so much of your material – you vary the dialog and often the plot from night to night. Why?
Cosby: Well, I think I’m similar in my comedy to the way jazz musicians work. After you play a song through once, the solos start. I treat each of my characters as a song, and I start soloing when the character comes into the plot. I have certain notes to follow, but I can do different things with them – like chord changes. For instance, in my LP To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, there’s a scene where the kid lies to his father about how his bed broke. On the record, the kid cries when he does it. But there are nights when the kid doesn’t cry. It all depends on how I want the kid to explain it to his old man. And also, to an extent, I want my live performances to be different from my records. I can’t stand to have somebody sitting out there with his lips moving with mine.
Playboy: Most of your humor has to do with your childhood. Was it as happy as you make it seem?
Cosby: Are you kidding? The thing I most remember about being a kid was being poor. I remember the eviction signs, especially; they were doubly hard to take. I had buddies who’d tell me, “Hey, man, like, you’re really poor; you didn’t pay your rent.” Now, I’m not saying my life was harder than anybody else’s; I’m just telling you the way it was. I remember a Christmas when we had no Christmas tree, and you just can’t get lower than that. We had an orange tree and there weren’t any presents. And I remember taking a girl to the junior high school prom and I didn’t have money to cover cab fare; I was hoping she’d ride the trolley car with me, in her gown. But something great happened: Her mother gave me $6 to help with the cab fare, because somehow she knew I didn’t have any money. Maybe it wasn’t all that tough to guess; I was wearing a blue double-breasted suit coat and a pair of black slacks. I wanted to keep my raincoat on, because I knew when I took it off, I’d be the only guy there who hadn’t been able to come up with the bread to rent a tux. One house we lived in had no bathtub; my mother used to take out this big tub, put water in it and put it on top of the stove to heat up.
But when you’re young, you have all kinds of energy and you forget the bad things and get on with the good: playing ball, going downtown with your friends to shine shoes and sell shopping bags, making $2 and coming back home. In that neighborhood, we never had an image to look up to, aside from a minister. Anybody else who came around was either the white insurance man or the white bill collector who was looking for his $2 for the plastic lamp he sold that was shaped like a cat with sparkling red eyes and a pink bottom. I know Ididn’t look up to any grownups. I would envy certain guys whose fathers had a sense of humor, whose fathers showed they cared for them.
Playboy: What about your own father?
Cosby: Well, I love my father and he loves me, but the old man wasn’t the outstanding part of my life. My parents got married in Philadelphia and my father started out with a middle-class paying job. But he was a heavy drinker when they married, and through booze and his own particular personality, he cared more about his buddies and what they thought of him than about taking care of his wife and kids. Somebody always seemed to rob my father on paydays between work and the house. So when he got home, I heard these terrible arguments between my mother and my father about where the money was. He’d say, “Well, you better take this, because that’s all I have.” And my mother would say, “But, Bill, you got paid today.” And then he’d say, “Well, this is all I have, so don’t ask me for any more.” Then there were times when he’d come back the next day and say, “Gimme $10.” And Mom would tell him she needed the money to buy food. And then an argument and maybe a fight. I remember my father beating my mother up three times. I was too small to do anything about it. These things are very, very painful to think about today.
Playboy: Do you have any pleasant memories of those years?
Cosby: Well, I dug cars, and still do. But I didn’t actually have one until I was 24 years old, when I bought an old Dodge for $75, and I loved it, loved it. It had the baldest tires in the world. A cue ball has more grip than those tires did. I called it the Black Phantom. I did everything with that car! When I was a teenager, it was a big thing when one of the guys in the neighborhood got a set of wheels. There was a guy named Charley Wades, whose father gave him a car. Now, Charley was almost like a cab driver; if you wanted to go to a party with him, you had to have some money to chip in for gas. Charley would say, “You can bitch about me charging you for the gas, but that’s the only thing I’m charging you for. You’re only giving me a quarter for gas, but what about my tires and my sparkplugs? What about my seats that you’re rubbing your ass on? Where were you when I had to reline my seats? I didn’t charge you nothing for that. So you’re getting away clean, man.”
And then there was the time Andy Patterson’s father gave him a 1946 Olds, which, by the time Andy got it, was the saddest and slowest thing in north Philly. One night we double-dated and Andy had put old Army blankets over the car seats. I don’t know what kind of rodent eats foam rubber, but Andy had two of the biggest holes I ever saw in his front seat; and when he forgot to tell a chick about them, she just about disappeared when she sat down. The covers went over her head and her can hit the bottom of the car. We all laughed about it, pulled her out and then drove into a gas station. It’s raining and cold and the gas-station guy is sitting in his little office when Andy honks the horn. The guy gets up, puts on his raincoat and hat and comes around the car, slips and falls flat on his behind. And we start laughing again. The guy gets up, soaking wet, and limps up to the window. Andy rolls it down and says, “Gimme 19 cents' worth of regular.” And the guy walks away, goes back into his office and just sits there, shaking his head, just shaking his head. Those were the days when, to us, almost nothing mattered except cars.
Playboy: Did you continue your romance with cars when you became successful?
Cosby: Three years after I bought the Black Phantom, I started appearing in big nightclubs and on TV shows, and the first thing I did was go out and buy a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL for $5000. I put a down payment on it and drove across country, from Philadelphia to San Francisco. I figure I paid about $6000 in garage bills to keep it going, because each mechanic I met would say, “Umm, the car don’t sound right, Bill,” and I’d say, “OK, fix it.” And I would ride the buses again, waiting for the car to be fixed, because parts had to be flown in from places like Egypt and San Diego and Mars.
One night, I was playing the Crescendo in Los Angeles and Theodore Bikel came to see me – we’d been good friends in Greenwich Village – and he invited me to go out for coffee. So Theodore’s car comes up and it’s a Corvette with We Shall Overcome and Freedom Now bumper stickers plastered all over it – so many you couldn’t even see the chrome. Then up comes my Mercedes and he says to me: “What the hell did the Nazis ever do for you?” The next day, I sold it for $2500 and bought a Chrysler Imperial. But that was too heavy a car, so I went to a Chrysler station wagon, then a Plymouth station wagon, and I didn’t like either of them. Finally, I said to my wife, Camille: “Every car we get, we’re trying to get away from the stereotype of the Negro with the Cadillac; but I don’t care what anybody says, the Cadillac is the best car in the world, and I’m buying one.” So I went and bought an Eldorado and it was great.
But it so happens that most of my friends are either entertainers or athletes, and Bill Russell came to the house when we had this two-door Eldorado, a $7500 car. My wife and I are up front and Russell and his girl are like two pretzels in the back. So we decided to get rid of it and I bought a Rover, which has a little more room in the back. Later, I owned a Rolls-Royce limousine for a while and drove it myself; but I got rid of it pretty quick, because a Rolls looks weird without a chauffeur up front and I didn’t want anybody driving me around. I’ve always loved Ferraris, so I have one of those now. I gave my wife an Excalibur, and I also have a 1934 Aston Martin, but I wouldn’t take that car out on the road. I got rid of the Rover, so now I own only three cars; I think I’m starting to come out of it.
Playboy: Your success came quickly. Did you spend the bread as fast as it came in?
Cosby: When I really started making it, I did. Everything had to be gold – tie clips, cuff links; I even went through the diamond-ring bit – the whole thing, but only for a couple of months. That’s all it takes to take the edge off your desire to own things. I don’t think this is necessarily a phase for most people who start earning a lot of money; but if you’ve come from a poor neighborhood, you tend to start buying like there’s no tomorrow. There are stores that thrive on that kind of thing, stores that challenge you to walk in. It’s almost like that store is saying, “I don’t think you can afford it.” So a guy goes in and he says, “I can too afford it.” Dunhill’s is that kind of store. I bought ice buckets, all kinds of expensive ashtrays, a humidor, lighters and a clock that tells the time all over the world; it takes me about an hour to find out what time it is in California. I put most of that stuff in one room, which my wife calls Cosby’s Dunhill.
Playboy: Is being rich as much fun as you thought it would be?
Cosby: I don’t really think of myself as being rich. To me, a rich cat is somebody who can retire and live off his money any time he wants to, and I can’t. I’d like to wind up with an income of $50,000 a year when I retire; but with the tax structure the way it is, that’s almost impossible to do, unless I make investments in things like land that over a long period of time will take good care of my money. I wouldn’t blame you, though, if you said, “What’s he complaining for? He’s a millionaire.”
Playboy: Are you?
Cosby: Last year, I earned $2 million – but that isn’t $2 million in the pocket. There’s an agent fee, a manager, press, a building for my corporation – and an accountant from whom you learn you’re really broke; that now, in fact, you’re worse off, in a way, than if you’d just taken a gig as a schoolteacher. Almost every cent is spent; and every penny you make, you got Uncle Sam taking out 70 percent after expenses. And now there’s cats coming to me because they’ve read some bullshit article about me, like Newsweek’s, saying I’m going to get $50 million from CBS for 20 years and that my record albums have earned, like, $3 million. So, as soon as cats hear this, they all got business deals to propose.
Playboy: Do many of them try to put the touch on you?
Cosby: All of them – and they don’t just ask for five bucks, either. They want it all. First time a guy says to me, “Hey, you got a minute?,” right away I know I’m being hit for bread. It used to take me a while to get up the nerve to say it, but now I can do it automatically: “Here’s my card. See me at the office and I’ll listen to you.” I usually have to shout this over the sound of the band at some jazz joint, because that’s where they’ve decided I’ve got to hear their plan. Well, 90 percent of these cats, when you say that to them, come back with, “If you don’t want to hear it now, man, then forget it, ‘cause I got a good thing going.” But let’s say a cat has something legitimate; if I tell him the bread isn’t there – which it isn’t – he won’t believe me, and he’s going to wind up putting me down. But let me tell you that in 1968, I had to scrape up – and get a loan from the bank for – $833,000 in taxes.
Playboy: In spite of the tax bite, you still have what most people would consider a lot of money at your disposal. How do you spend it?
Cosby: Quickly. My home cost $250,000, plus $100,000 worth of furniture. But it’s a home, not a palace with chandeliers hanging and white rugs and things you can’t walk on or sit on. You come into my house and you can sit on my sofa and take your shoes off and plop your feet up on the table. People live there, not a maid and a butler – people. It’s comfortable; nothing is closed off. My Ferrari cost $17,000, and it’s air conditioned, because I remember Philly summers riding around with friends of mine in an old 1946 Chevy; we would be sweating and we’d have to drive fast to make some breeze. I like groovy steaks; I like to serve a great wine to my friends when they come by, even though I don’t drink. I remember one time when I was a kid and read that Mitzi Gaynor was going to get $50,000 for playing a week in Las Vegas and saying to myself, “God, that’s a lot of bread.” It was so totally out of proportion to what I dreamed of, even when I started making $400 a week. There’s a tremendous gap between where I used to live and what I used to do and where I am now. And I dig it.
Playboy: In the midst of your own luxury, do you ever feel guilty when you think about the poverty in which most black Americans are forced to live?
Cosby: When I first started making big money, I felt guilty, I guess. But now I feel that I’ve really put together a hell of a one-man antipoverty program. I took my talent and I put it to work, and today, I’ve brought up, by the bootstraps, the economic conditions of a mother, a father, two brothers, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and other family members, and then reached out to help close friends. The next step is to help out other black people. This doesn’t simply mean giving them $500,000 – although I give plenty. But to me, reaching out to black people means to open up my particular part of the industry. My production companies will have black apprenticeship programs and will use black actors, directors and stagehands. After they’ve demonstrated their talents and people dig 'em, they can then go on their own, which is why I tour with talented black performers like the Pair Extraordinaire and Leon Bibb. When they meet my audience, the people remember their names. So I don’t feel guilty about having bread. Now, when I meet a guy in the ghetto, of course he’s going to be envious, but he doesn’t necessarily resent me for it; there’s a whole lot of cats in the ghetto to whom I Spy was something to be proud of, in a way. I certainly was, and I can only thank one man for making it happen: Sheldon Leonard.
Playboy: How did you meet him?
Cosby: It was really funny, man, and it wasn’t funny. I went into this business after hearing Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner do their 2000-year-old-man routine. I loved their flow of humor, the looseness of it and the fact that any second, a piece of greatness could suddenly be created. So I decided to go into show business to do this kind of comedy. I figured I’d eventually need a partner, but then I go on television, do two or three guest shots, and suddenly I’m playing at the Crescendo in Los Angeles. Remember, now, I’m in show business for two years, and Carl Reiner comes by to see the show and afterward he says, “I loved your show, man.” Well, of course, I’m stunned. Like, Carl Reiner – one half of the 2000-year-old-man thing – came to see me! Now, this is before militancy and Watts and Detroit, when it was still something else for a white star to come see a black man. And he says, “My producer, Sheldon Leonard, wants to see you. He couldn’t be here tonight, but he loves your work.”
The next morning, I went to Sheldon’s office, hoping that perhaps he would give me a guest shot on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Now, mind you, I couldn’t act at all; I’d never done any acting, except a couple of lies to my mother. So I walked into Sheldon’s office and he talks to me, not about doing a Van Dyke Show but about a new series that would co-star a black man and a white man. They’re going to be spies and they’re going to travel to Hong Kong. Now, here I am, my first time in California, only the third time I’ve ever been out of Pennsylvania, and this guy is talking about Hong Kong. That knocked me out of my chair more than the series. I said, “Travel to Hong Kong? This program is going to pay my way to Hong Kong?” And Sheldon is telling me he thinks I’ve got the particular personality that will work for his show and that all I have to do is put the same thing on TV that I do in my stand-up act, and that’ll be my job. Then he says, like, “Can you act?” And I say, “You must be high. You didn’t see me when I did Othello in Central Park last year, did ya?” And he smiles and all I’m thinking about is, “Hong Kong, Hong Kong, man. I’m gonna see the original Chinese people, the ones I’ve read about.” So I get back to my manager, Roy Silver, and I tell him, “Don’t let this cat off the hook, 'cause if he’s blowing smoke, we’re not letting him get out of it.” Well, Sheldon said he’d get in touch with me a year later. And he did.
Playboy: Before the show actually got under way, it was reported that you didn’t want to play a hip valet, since no matter how hip you were, you’d still be a white man’s servant. Was this true?
Cosby: I had to find out a lot of things from Sheldon before I signed. Like, was I going to carry a gun? I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have to go off into the bushes when an I Spy fight started. They said I didn’t. So Bob Culp and I fought the international Communist conspiracy on an equal basis. I must tell you, though, that the show wouldn’t have been what it was if it hadn’t been for Bob.
Playboy: Had you met him before you started working together?
Cosby: No. I met him when the show began filming. But he did send me a letter not too long after Sheldon had first talked to me, when I was playing Mister Kelly’s in Chicago. The letter said that two guys going to do a series must get married, that they are married. Right away, this was actor talk, and I had only been in the business around three years. Here was an actor telling me I have to marry him. That upset me a little.
Playboy: How did it go when you finally got together with Culp?
Cosby: The first time I saw Bob was the first day we read for the series; I walked in and we shook hands, but we didn’t really have a chance to talk before they gave us scripts. Then it was the moment of truth for me: All of the fears, anxieties and apprehensions were bubbling and boiling, because now I had to prove myself. Although the producers were with me, they were really listening to see if I could act. I’d never read a single line for Sheldon Leonard – and when you think about that, about a producer banking half a million dollars on a guy whose comedy routine he liked, it becomes a hell of a gamble. Well, they listened, and I was embarrassed, because I was no good – really no good. I fumbled and mumbled and couldn’t concentrate or do anything right.
But afterward, Bob and I got together and talked and, at Bob’s suggestion, we agreed to make the relationship between the white character, Kelly Robinson, and the black man, Alexander Scott, a beautiful relationship, so that people could see what it would be like if two cats like that could get along. Bob’s a fine actor and a fine human being. He could have made it rough for me; he could have made me paranoid with criticism, because my ego came into play. At the time, I was a pretty well-known, up-and-coming comic; and if he’d been rough on me, it would have been too easy for me to say to myself, “What do I need all this for?” In other words, if Bob hadn’t been the great guy he is, I might have copped out.
Playboy: Were you still nervous when the filming actually began?
Cosby: It was really weird, man. As a comedian, I can walk out in front of 5000 people and not worry about a thing. Not a thing, believe me. But to stand up and face a camera and crew of maybe 15 guys and get uptight about it – to me, that’s weird. It took a lot of weeks before I felt relaxed and able to do my thing without being self-conscious.
Playboy: How did you feel about playing and, in a real sense, glamorizing a CIA agent?
Cosby: Well, actually, the CIA never let us say we were CIA agents.
Playboy: But, in effect, you were, weren’t you?
Cosby: In effect, yes. But the important thing to me, man, was to get a black face on the screen and let him be a hero. I would have done it regardless of what the CIA’s image was at the time – and the series was conceived and drawn up well before the CIA got to be a heavy. I was very, very happy – forget the CIA – that a black man was able to be on an equal basis with the show’s white hero.
Playboy: One continuing criticism of the show’s stories was that Bob Culp always got the girls, which seemed to make him a little more equal than you. Did you resent that?
Cosby: If you weren’t a steady viewer, you might have missed some of Scotty’s love stories. But that concerned me less than the fact that Sheldon Leonard didn’t hire me as a token. He said he wanted to use a Negro. Now, at that particular time, how was the black man accepted by the public? I’ll tell you: Before we even got the first show on the air, writers and poll takers had picked us to wind up 97th out of 100 shows. We originally were going to work I Spy like a funny Lone Ranger and Tonto, wherein I would supply the humor. I accepted that, man, because that’s the way it was: There was nothing else going. I felt I could surely bring some things out in this character, because here was a guy who carried a gun and knew karate, so at least he was going to be able to shoot and fight. As long as Scotty wasn’t going to let the other cat beat up the bad guys after he got knocked out, as long as he wasn’t going to be carried home so he could do the paperwork, I felt it would be OK. Bob, by the way, wrote the first I Spy script in which I was interested in a woman – who turned out to be Eartha Kitt.
Playboy: How did you develop the character of Scott?
Cosby: Well, the first thing I decided was to make this guy, who was so intelligent on paper, a real human being. If you know a guy who has a Ph.D. or a master’s, you know he kind of respects what he has, but he doesn’t talk as if he’s always conscious of the degree. He’ll say “ain’t” and “got” and “I’m gonna,” all the time knowing technically, grammatically what’s going on. So I decided to make Alexander Scott this kind of guy – a guy who grew up in the ghetto, who went to school and took on middle-class values, who was trying to live like the white middle class. But he always knew he was black, with a real degree of black pride.
Playboy: When did you feel you had Scott really pegged?
Cosby: After about the seventh story, I felt I could kind of walk into it. It was almost as if I just woke up one morning, went to work and knew it was cool.
Playboy: Did you feel, as many critics did, that I Spy’s scripts were often secondary to the banter between you and Culp?
Cosby: Bob and I – and the producers – wanted the shows to have stronger stories, but we never really got them. They became watered-down mystery plots. And in our third year, a couple of the shows turned out to be walking National Geographic interviewss; our backs would be to the camera and you could see the Aegean over our shoulders. Or we’d be looking over the edge of a beautiful cliff on the Mediterranean.
Playboy: Were you relieved or disappointed when the show was canceled after its third season?
Cosby: Both. When I first got the news, I felt, like, “I’m free”; but after a few minutes, I started thinking about all those hours I would have off. I started thinking about our producers – Sheldon Leonard, Morton Fine and David Friedkin – and how unhappy they had to be. About all the grips and people who made a living from the show. And then I wondered about all the things we could have – and should have – done on the show. But that isn’t the way TV is set up. We were there to make the dollar. The only way I can look at it is that we were in 74th place after three years and to go into a fourth season wouldn’t have made much sense. So NBC decided to shoot a brand-new show that went an hour and cost only half as much as I Spy. Finally, it was just a matter of economics. But we had some new things in mind for the fourth year, and I’m kind of sorry we didn’t get a chance to do them.
Playboy: What were they?
Cosby: Well, our producers had opened their eyes and ears to us. It was easier for Bob and me to kidnap a producer and lock him up in his room than for Columbia students to get their grievances taken care of. We got Sheldon to agree to more love stories for me in the fourth season, also to more scripts for Bob carrying a whole show by himself. And, for dessert, we wanted to bring the boys together in a couple of stories where there’d be no script, no nothing; they’d just walk around kind of improvising. So it would have been a new show.
Playboy: To a very real extent, your role in I Spy helped open up the television industry to black performers. Do you think the representation of Negroes on TV has improved enough since you began the series in 1965?
Cosby: Well, we’ve certainly come a long way from black cats who were bug-eyed, afraid of ghosts and always saying things like “Feet, don’t leave me now.” Guys like Mantan Moreland, Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best never hit anybody, never fought back and were always scared white. And we don’t see the mass stupidity of Amos 'n’ Andy anymore. That show still gets to me, man. Each time I name an Amos ‘n’ Andy character, try to imagine these guys as white, and you won’t be able to: You had Lightnin', who was slow in every possible way; Calhoun, the lawyer who never got anybody out of trouble and never went into court prepared; Kingfish, the conniver, who was always saying, “Yeah, but brother Andy…”; and Andy himself, who wasn’t too bright, either. Like, nobody on that show was bright except Amos, the cab driver, who we hardly ever heard from. And then there was Kingfish’s wife, Sapphire; every time he came through that door, she’d be chewing him out for something. Now, audiences weren’t supposed to laugh with these people; they were supposed to laugh at them, because they were so dumb. And while that show was on, there was nothing else on the air to counterbalance these stereotypes. It was almost as if Poles were exclusively presented as characters in Polish jokes. Well, you’re just not going to believe that all Polish people are really dumb; but if that’s all you got to see about ‘em, you might start to believe it. And they’d understandably resent it. Or the same thing about Jewish people hoarding money. You have to show things besides stereotypes.
Playboy: Do you think that a series with a nonstereotyped all-black cast could be successful on TV today?
Cosby: Probably not. The kind of show you mean would have to be about the life of a black family, with all its struggles. But if you’re really going to do a series about a black family, you’re going to have to bring out the heavy; and who is the heavy but the white bigot? This would be very painful for most whites to see, a show that talks about the white man and puts him down. It would strike indifferent whites as dangerous; it would be called controversial and they probably wouldn’t want to tune in. But when there’s a right and a wrong, where’s the controversy? The white bigot is wrong. The indifferent person sitting on the fence is wrong. Instead of having occasional shows that present the black viewpoint on educational channels, the networks should be in there pitching now.
Playboy: Isn’t the widening employment of black actors in featured roles on various series a hopeful sign that television’s racial stereotyping is coming to an end?
Cosby: I think it’s a positive thing that most of the new shows have a black member of the cast; when I started I Spy, about the only blacks on TV were maids and butlers. It’s still tokenism, but I would rather see a cat who is standing tall as a token than nobody at all. And the acceptance of black people on television means that when enough shows are seen by enough whites, they’ll get used to it, with the result that black people will be able to do more things in this society. There’s also the important matter of black identification. Let’s forget hatred and bigotry for the moment; let’s pretend they don’t exist. Now, I have black skin. When I look at TV, I have to identify with what I see, and all I saw when I was growing up was the white upper class or white middle class or white lower class. So it was white America that I identified with, that I studied and tried to emulate as I grew up. Now, a black kid can try to act like a white American, but there’s just no way he can be a white American. So when TV begins to feature black people, it’s performing a great service to the black community; that’s the way I felt about being in I Spy.
Playboy: You won three consecutive Emmys for I Spy, and your comedy LPs won you four consecutive Grammys. Which meant more to you?
Cosby: They all mean the same to me: that I’m a winner; that I’ve been chosen by the people of my profession, regardless of who they are, as the best. I think if I could take the awards and do what I really wanted with them, I’d probably Scotch-tape them onto the hood of my car and kind of drive around with a little smile on my face. Because I’m really proud of them, man. But you’re supposed to be very cool about these things and tuck the Emmys and the Grammys away in the corner of some room, so that nobody will think you’re vain and conceited. The greatest moment of an award, though, is when they announce your name, the moment when you’re expected to say thank you. Then it’s on to the next thing; you can’t hang around bathing your body in the reflection of a trophy.
Playboy: One of the things you seem to be going on to next is singing. You have two vocal LPs out, and one of your singles, Little Old Man, was a pop hit two years ago. Are you going to try to make it as big in singing as you have in comedy?
Cosby: No; singing is just something I like to do. I like rhythm and blues and I’m thinking about cutting another blues album, but I don’t even come close to having any kind of a voice. It’s just a hobby – like some guys like to golf. They don’t play a good game, but they’re out on the course every morning. I don’t shoot a good game of rhythm and blues, but I got my cap and clubs and shoes, and I go sing.
Playboy: Your first film – a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan – will be released sometime this fall. Do you have the same trepidations about going into movies that you did before you became a television star?
Cosby: Not as many as then, but I’m entering a new field, and that means I’ve got a new audience to win over; it doesn’t matter about past awards or that when you play a city, you draw 17,000 people for a one-night stand. This is a new thing and you’ve got to make a new impression. But I hope to have better scripts than I did on TV, and I hope to do things that have broader scope.
Playboy: At this point, how would you assess yourself as an actor?
Cosby: I think I have a personality talent. I can play a sensitive guy and also a funny guy, caught in a funny situation. You won’t see me going into Brando-ish depths or trying to compete with Sir Laurence Olivier on Shakespeare. But I feel I have the intelligence and the talent to be a big star; I really believe that. This isn’t conceit; it’s just that I know what I can do and, by this time, I also know that by doing things the way I want to do them, people will be for me.
Playboy: Do you ever worry that your popularity will wane and that you’ll no longer be able to earn the kind of money you’re presently pulling in?
Cosby: I have a great fear of winding up broke; I guess that would be about the most embarrassing thing that could happen to me. Because, if I do wind up broke, my mother will blame it all on the cigars I smoke; my father will say it’s because of all the expensive things I bought at Dunhill’s; and my wife will say it’s from all the charitable organizations I’ve given to. So to avoid all that, as I said before, I’m involved in long-range investments – like land – that will eventually bring me an income of about $50,000 a year. Maybe one day, I’ll have made such heavy bread that even Sam won’t be able to penetrate it, and then I hope I’ll be set for the rest of my life. Because I really do plan to get out of show business within five years or so.
Cosby: No, I’m not going to make a total break with show business, because, to me, that would almost be like castration. I think I’ll be doing occasional TV specials and appearances, a little less than the kind of thing Bob Hope does. I’m going to just take my little bundle and let all those handshaking, graft-taking $30,000-a-year politicians know they won’t have to worry about me standing in any unemployment line.
Playboy: What will you do with yourself?
Cosby: I plan to teach in a junior high school, which is where kids become glandularly aware of being male and female. Early adolescence is a very difficult time of life for ghetto kids, because people to look up to, like I said earlier, are scarce in a poor neighborhood. In middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, kids have their fathers to look up to – college graduates or skilled workmen. In lower-class neighborhoods, kids look up to the gambler’s skills – skills that work openly against the law. Poor kids have no image that teaches them the value of education. It has to do with what they’re taught in history classes, too; I’d want to show kids there are black heroes to be proud of, so they have a different kind of cat to look up to. Because, let’s face it, most of the black people we admire are running that race or hitting that ball or dribbling it down-court. And so black girls hope to marry a guy who’ll become a professional athlete. And the guy hopes to become a pro, goes to college without knowing about or being ready for college, plays ball and often never graduates. Without teaching a subject in particular, I want to help put those kids on to finding out what they really want to do in life.
Playboy: But schools aren’t set up for classes without any particular subject.
Cosby: No, they’re not – but that doesn’t mean they won’t be. In small towns, the church and the school are the center of things; functions are held at both and the pastor and the teacher know all the parents. No school is like that in the big cities. Instead, school is the building whose windows you break in the summertime; it’s the building with the yard where you play penny poker games. It isn’t the connecting ground it should be for kids. Children grow up thinking that all teachers are Ichabod Cranes, but teachers are just underpaid human beings who aren’t supposed to strike. For every successful human being, there are at least three or four teachers who inspired them to become what they are today; but the teachers never get any of the credit. When I was in school, I remember a teacher telling me I’d better study or else I’d grow up to be a garbage man. If you look at what the average garbage collector makes and what the average schoolteacher makes, I think the garbage man is probably telling his kids they’d better not study or else they’re going to wind up as schoolteachers.
Playboy: In last December’s Playboy Interview, Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver said that unless black demands for equality are quickly met, the result will be “a second Civil War…plunging America into the depths of its most desperate nightmare.” In view of your plans to teach black children, form black production companies and continue your entertainment career, it would seem that you don’t agree with Cleaver’s evaluation of America’s future.
Cosby: I’m not in favor of raising guns, but I don’t think Cleaver would be, either, if he thought there was any other way to solve the racial situation in this country. A lot of black men feel that way, and I can’t say they’re wrong, because America’s resistance to giving the black man a fair shake is almost unbelievably strong. And when black people keep butting their heads against the stone wall of racism, there are those who feel they have to become violent.
Look, there can’t be an argument over the fact that we should have equality in America. But the whi