[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.