Black History Month – Day 13 Spotlight: Bill Cosby

For me, another great contributor in American history – partly due to the family relation (yes Bill Cosby is a distant cousin of my family, as is Arthur Ashe).

Mr. William Henry “Bill” Cosby, Jr. was born in Philadelphia on July 12, 1937. He is a world-known comedian, actor, author, television producer, educator, musician and activist.

He is a veteran stand-up performer who got his start at various clubs, then landed a starring role in the 1960s action show, I Spy. He later starred in his own series, the situation comedy The Bill Cosby Show, in 1969. He was one of the major characters on the children’s television series The Electric Company for its first two seasons, and created the educational cartoon comedy series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, about a group of young friends growing up in the city. Add to those accomplishments the numerous films that Cosby has been in.

During the 1980s, Cosby produced and starred in what is considered to be one of the decade’s defining sitcoms, The Cosby Show, which aired eight seasons from 1984 to 1992. The sitcom highlighted the experiences and growth of an upper-middle-class African-American family. He also produced the spin-off sitcom A Different World, which became second to The Cosby Show in ratings. He starred in the sitcom Cosby from 1996 to 2000 and also hosted Kids Say the Darndest Things for two seasons.

He has been a sought-after spokesman, and has endorsed a number of products, including Jell-O, Kodak film, Ford, Texas Instruments, and Coca-Cola, including New Coke. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included him in his book, the 100 Greatest African Americans.

In 1976, Cosby earned a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts. For his doctoral research, he wrote a dissertation entitled, “An Integration of the Visual Media Via ‘Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids’ Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning”.

Cosby Background

Mr. Cosby is one of four sons born to Anna Pearl and William Henry Cosby, Sr., who served as a sailor in the U.S. Navy. During much of his early childhood, Cosby’s father was away in the U.S. armed forces and spent several years fighting in World War II.

As a student, he described himself as a class clown. Cosby was the captain of the baseball and track and field teams at Mary Channing Wister Elementary School in Philadelphia, as well as the class president. Early on, though, teachers noted his propensity for clowning around rather than studying. At Fitz Simmons Junior High, Cosby began acting in plays as well as continuing his devotion to playing sports. He went on to Central High School, an academically challenging magnet school, but his full schedule of playing football, basketball, baseball, and running track made it hard for him.

In addition, Cosby was working before and after school, selling produce, shining shoes, and stocking shelves at a supermarket to help out the family. He transferred to Germantown High School, but failed the tenth grade. Instead of repeating, he got a job as an apprentice at a shoe repair shop.

Subsequently, he joined the Navy, serving at the Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, Naval Station Argentia, Newfoundland and at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.

While serving in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman for four years, Cosby worked in physical therapy with some seriously injured Korean War soldiers. This experience had a profound impact on Cosby and he immediately realized the need for an education, and finished his equivalency diploma via correspondence courses.

He then won a track and field scholarship to Philadelphia’s Temple University in 1961–62 and studied physical education while running track and playing fullback on the football team.

Even as he progressed through his undergraduate studies, Cosby had continued to hone his talent for humor. When he began bar tending at the Cellar, a club in Philadelphia, to earn money, he became fully aware of his ability to make people laugh.

Cosby left Temple to pursue a career in comedy, though he would return to collegiate studies in the 1970s. He lined up gigs at clubs in Philadelphia and soon was off to New York City, where he appeared at The Gaslight Cafe starting in 1962.

He lined up dates in Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. He received national exposure on NBC’s The Tonight Show in the summer of 1963 which led to a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records, who released his debut LP Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right!, the first of a series of popular comedy albums, in 1964.

While many comics were using the growing freedom of that decade to explore controversial, sometimes risqué, material, Cosby was making his reputation with humorous recollections of his childhood. Many Americans wondered about the absence of race as a topic in Cosby’s stories. As Cosby’s success grew he had to defend his choice of material regularly; as he argued, “A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I see it too.’ Okay. He’s white. I’m Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right? So I figure this way I’m doing as much for good race relations as the next guy.”

Cosby’s greatest television success came in September 1984 with the debut of The Cosby Show. The program aired weekly on NBC and went on to become the highest ranking sitcom of all time. For Cosby, the new situation comedy was a response to the increasingly violent and vulgar fare the networks usually offered. Cosby is an advocate for humor that is family-oriented. He insisted on and received total creative control of the series, and he was involved in every aspect of the series. The show had parallels to Cosby’s actual family life: like the characters Cliff and Claire Huxtable, Cosby and his wife Camille were college educated, financially successful, and had five children. Essentially a throwback to the wholesome family situation comedy, The Cosby Show was unprecedented in its portrayal of an intelligent, affluent, African-American family.

Much of the material from the pilot and first season of The Cosby Show was taken from his then popular video Bill Cosby: Himself, released in 1983. The series was an immediate success, debuting near the top of the ratings and staying there for most of its long run. The Cosby Show is one of only three American programs that have been #1 in the Nielsen ratings for at least five consecutive seasons. People magazine called the show “revolutionary”, and Newsday concurred that it was a “real breakthrough.”

Nowadays it is not difficult to find and keep up with Bill Cosby. He is extremely active in social media; recording audiocasts, posting tweets, doing interviews, and of course, still doing comedy and philanthropic work.

Here are the primary locations to stay in-the-know with Bill Cosby.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Ustream | MySpace