An entertainer for three decades, William Henry Cosby, Jr. (born 1937) starred in live performances, record albums, books, film, and television. His long-running, hugely popular "The Cosby Show" was in the top of the Nielson television ratings from its debut in 1984.
William Henry Cosby, Junior, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, July 12, 1937, to Anna and William Cosby. There were four boys in the family, but one died from rheumatic fever at six years old. Soon after the young boy's death, William Cosby Sr., left his family and joined the Navy. Bill, the oldest son, became the man of the family and helped his mother pay the bills by doing odd jobs such as delivering groceries and shining shoes. He tried to keep up with his school work, but he dropped out of high school to join the Navy in the early 1950s. Cosby's mother had always stressed the importance of education to her children, and so eventually Bill earned his diploma through correspondence school and was accepted at Temple University in Philadelphia on an athletic scholarship.
The athlete at Temple still needed spending money, so he took a job as a bartender in a neighborhood café called The Underground. The bar had a resident comedian who often didn't show up for his act, so Cosby began to fill in, entertaining the crowd with jokes and humorous stories. His reputation as a funny bartender spread throughout the city, and Cosby soon got offers to do stand-up comedy in other clubs. His act was influenced by Mel Brooks, Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, and Lenny Bruce. Cosby's biggest chance came when he was asked to perform at the Gaslight Café, a Greenwich Village coffeehouse that regularly featured young performers such as Bob Dylan.
Cosby was soon making people laugh in large, well-known night spots all over the country, and he reached a point where his career showed him more promise than his education. He left Temple in 1962.
Cosby's first electronic medium for his comedy was the long-playing album. "Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow … Right!" (1963), produced by Roy Silver and Allan Sherman, was the comedian's first recording, as well as his first to win a Grammy Award. His second album, "I Started Out As a Child," released in 1964, received another Grammy honor as Best Comedy Album of the Year. All of Cosby's albums earned more than $1 million in sales. His popularity continued and he won consecutive Best Comedy Album awards every year from 1964 to 1969.
Allan Sherman was one of Cosby's biggest fans as well as his producer, and when Sherman filled in for Johnny Carson as guest host of "The Tonight Show" in 1963, he asked Cosby to be his guest. "The Tonight Show" producers were skeptical about having an African American comic on the show, but Sherman was adamant and Cosby was a big hit.
Sheldon Leonard, producer of mid-1960s hits including "The Danny Thomas Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and "The Andy Griffith Show," was watching "The Tonight Show" the night Cosby was on. At the time, he was looking for a male actor to play opposite Robert Culp on a new dramatic series—and when he saw Cosby, he had his man. "I Spy" was an immediate success, and the fact that it was the first prime-time television program to star a black person added to its appeal. In 1967 Cosby won the Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series, and he did likewise in 1968 and 1969. His second prime-time series, "The Bill Cosby Show," began in 1969, just one year after "I Spy" went off the air. Starring Cosby as a high school sports instructor, it was number one in its first season. However, ratings steadily dropped over the next two years, and the show was canceled in the spring of 1971.
The following year marked the beginning of "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" as a regular series on CBS (it aired first in 1971 as a special). The Saturday afternoon cartoon featured a group of kids living and learning together in an urban area much like the impoverished section of Philadelphia where Cosby was reared. Cosby provided the voice for every character and bracketed the animated portion of the show in person to discuss the episode's message. So that his audience would learn good behavior and solid values, Cosby employed a panel of educators to act as advisers. The program won a variety of awards, and audience estimates numbered about six million.
Cosby made two more attempts at prime time with "The New Bill Cosby Show" and "Cos" in 1972 and 1976, respectively; both were unsuccessful variety shows which included dancing, skits, and monologue sessions.
Although Cosby dropped out of prime-time television for some time during the mid-1970s, he was still quite active in comedy, mostly through live performances and comedy albums such as "Why Is There Air?," "Wonderfulness," and "Revenge." The majority of the material for these albums came from Cosby's childhood experiences, such as plotting an escape from a bed he'd been told was surrounded by thousands of poisonous snakes, living through a tonsillectomy at age five, and having everything he ever made in shop class turn into an ashtray.
Cosby earned his undergraduate degree from Temple University in 1971 and in 1977 completed his Ph.D. in education at the University of Massachusetts. Cosby's commitment to education included regular appearances during the 1970s on "The Electric Company," produced by the Children's Television Workshop, which also produced "Sesame Street." He also appeared as the host of the Picturepages segment on "Captain Kangaroo" in the early 1980s.
Hollywood also employed the talent of Cosby, but with indifferent results. His first movie was "Man and Boy," a 1972 western film with Cosby in the lead; panned by critics, it quickly died at the box office. A much later movie (1978) with Richard Pryor, "California Suite," was written by Neil Simon. The film fared relatively well. In between, he made "Hickey and Boggs," "Uptown Saturday Night," "Let's Do It Again," "Mother, Jugs and Speed," "A Piece of the Action," "The Devil and Max Devlin," "Bill Cosby Himself," and "Leonard the Sixth."
By 1984 Cosby had become disillusioned with what he saw on television and came up with his own idea of a sitcom. The networks were skeptical, as his last two attempts at prime time were failures. Only NBC was interested; they ordered six provisional episodes only after seeing a pilot. Cosby gave them a segment featuring himself as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable discussing sex with his two teenaged daughters. NBC liked it enough to agree to Cosby's major concessions, including complete creative control and a studio in New York. He would cast himself as an obstetriciangynecologist married to an attorney. They would be parents to five children, and their names would be Huxtable (executives wanted him to change it to Brown). They would represent middle-class values and they would just happen to be black. They would not take on traditional television characteristics of blacks, neither Fred Sanford's dialect nor George Jefferson's anger. They would be a happy family dealing with everyday problems and incidents, and it would be called "The Cosby Show."
The first show aired in September 1984, and it was an immediate success. That season "The Cosby Show" finished as the third most watched prime-time television show, according to Nielsen ratings, and it was number one for the next four seasons. The show went into syndication in October 1988, and it sold to the Fox network for $550 million the rights to 182 programs to last for three and a half years.
On Jan. 16, 1997, Cosby's life took a dramatic turn, as headlines nationwide broke the shocking news that his only son had been murdered. Ennis, 27, had stopped to change a flat tire along a Los Angeles freeway when he was allegedly shot to death by an 18-year-old Ukrainian immigrant. Details of the fated night were sketchy at first, and it was not certain that the killer would be found. National tabloid the National Enquirer offered $100,000 for information leading to the arrest of the shooter, which prompted one witness, a friend of defendant Mihkhail Markhasev, to come forward to testify. The District Attorney's office announced in June, 1997, that it would not seek the death penalty for Markhasev.
Two days after the shooting, Cosby gained additional attention when a young woman alleged she was his illegitimate child. Prosecutors later claimed Autumn Jackson, 22, was one of three defendants who schemed to extort $40 million from the comedian. Cosby's lawyers alleged Jackson, along with failed children's television producer Jose Medina and Boris Sabas, tried to trash Cosby's reputation by threatening to sell the story to a supermarket tabloid. Cosby admitted to having had an affair with Jackson's mother, Shawn Upshaw, but has denied being Jackson's father. In July of 1997, Jackson was convicted of extortion.
Cosby and his wife, Camille, have been married since 1964 and have four daughters. Cosby has been his own manager and producer and wrote several books, including the best-selling "Fatherhood," published in 1986. He also became one of the most visible spokespeople in the nation, pitching products for Jell-O, Kodak, Del Monte, the Ford Motor Company and the Coca-Cola Company on television commercials.
"Cosby," which debuted in the fall of 1996 is the latest addition to the Cosby television archive. The CBS show, which also starred Madeline Kahn and Phylicia Rashad, was co-produced by Cosby for Carsey-Werner Productions.
Further Reading on William Henry Cosby Jr
In addition to numerous articles in the popular media, Bill Cosby has been the subject of books by Bill Adler, The Cosby Wit (1986); Ronald L. Smith, Bill Cosby in Words and Pictures (1986) and Cosby (1986); James T. Olsen, Look Back in Laughter (1974); and Caroline Latham, Bill Cosby—For Real (1987). Cosby himself has written Fatherhood (1986), Time Flies (1988), and Love and Marriage (1989). All are anecdotal, humorous, and matter-of-factly make fun of everyday activities.