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

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