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Playboy Interview: Bill Cosby
  • February 21, 2012 : 20:02
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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.

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