William Henry “Bill” Cosby, Jr. (born July 12, 1937) is an American comedian, actor, author, television producer, educator, musician and activist. A veteran stand-up performer, he 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. Cosby has also acted in a number of films.
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-Americanfamily. 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 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 pudding, 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 was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is one of four sons born to Anna Pearl (née Hite), a maid, 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 aclass 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 toGermantown High School, but failed the tenth grade. Instead of repeating, he got a job as an apprentice at a shoe repair shop, which he liked, but could not see himself doing the rest of his life. 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 casualties, which helped him discover what was important to him. Then 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. Cosby also joined the school’s chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
Cosby loved humor, and he called himself the class clown. Even as he progressed through his undergraduate studies, Cosby had continued to hone his talent for humor, joking with fellow enlistees in the service and then with college friends. 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. He worked his customers and saw his tips increase, then ventured on to the stage.
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 and released 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.”
Carl Reiner, at the awarding to Cosby of the Mark Twain Prize in 2009, described a step in Cosby’s career. Reiner’s son Rob Reiner, then in his early teens, delivered what the father regards as a word-for-word rendition of Cosby’s performance on The Ed Sullivan Show of the “Right!” routine, from his “Noah” series that also appears on the 1963 album Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow…Right!. The father’s interest led him first to obtain the video-taped performance, and then to propose Cosby as a guest for The Dick Van Dyke Show. Asked about whether the comic could act, he asserted anyone who could pull off the role of The Lord in the “Right!” routine must be a skilled actor.[original research?] Cosby’s official agency biography differs, saying Carl Reiner had caught Cosby’s act in Pittsburgh “and introduced Cosby to producer Sheldon Leonard, who signed him to star in the I Spy series.
In 1965, when he was cast alongside Robert Culp in the I Spy espionage adventure series, Cosby became the first African-American co-star in a dramatic television series, and NBCbecame the first to present a series so cast. At first Cosby and NBC executives were concerned that some affiliates might be unwilling to carry the series. At the beginning of the 1965 season four stations declined the show; they were in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. But the rest of the country[vague] was taken with the show’s exotic locales and the authentic chemistry between the stars, and it became one of the ratings hits of that television season. I Spy finished among the twenty most-watched shows that year, and Cosby would be honored with three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
During the run of the series, Cosby continued to do stand-up comedy performances, and released a half-dozen record albums. He also began to dabble in singing, recording Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings in 1967, which provided him with a hit single with his recording of “Li’l Ole Man”. He would record several more musical albums into the early 1970s, but he continued to record primarily stand-up comedy work.
Fat Albert, The Bill Cosby Show, and the 1970s
Cosby still pursued a variety of television projects: as a regular guest host on The Tonight Show and as the star of an annual special for NBC. He returned with another series in 1969,The Bill Cosby Show, a situation comedy that ran for two seasons. Cosby played a physical education teacher at a Los Angeles high school. While only a modest critical success, the show was a ratings hit, finishing eleventh in its first season.
After The Bill Cosby Show left the air, Cosby returned to his education. He began graduate work at the University of Massachusetts, qualifying under a special program that allowed for the admission of students who had not completed their bachelor’s degrees, but who had had a significant impact on society and/or their communities through their careers. This professional interest led to his involvement in the PBS series The Electric Company, for which he recorded several segments teaching reading skills to young children.
In 1972, Cosby received an MA from the University of Massachusetts and was also back in prime time with a variety series, The New Bill Cosby Show. However, this time he met with poor ratings, and the show lasted only a season. More successful was a Saturday morning show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, hosted by Cosby and based on his own childhood. That series ran from 1972 to 1979, and as The New Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids from 1979 to 1984. Some schools used the program as a teaching tool, and Cosby himself wrote a dissertation on it, “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”, as partial fulfillment of obtaining his 1976 doctorate in education, also from the University of Massachusetts. Subsequently, Temple University, where Cosby had begun but never finished his undergraduate studies, would grant him his bachelor’s degree on the basis of “life experience”.
Also during the 1970s, Cosby and other African-American actors, including Sidney Poitier, joined forces to make some successful comedy films that countered the violent “blaxploitation” films of the era. Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Let’s Do It Again (1975) were generally praised, but much of Cosby’s film work has fallen flat. Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976) costarringRaquel Welch and Harvey Keitel; A Piece of the Action, with Poitier; and California Suite, a compilation of four Neil Simon plays, were all panned. In addition, Cos (1976) an hour-long variety show featuring puppets, sketches, and musical numbers, was canceled within the year. Cosby was also a regular on children’s public television programs starting in the 1970s, hosting the “Picture Pages” segments that lasted into the early 1980s.
The Cosby Show and the 1980s
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 both humorous and 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 ratingsfor at least five consecutive seasons, along with All in the Family and American Idol, the only program to be ranked #1 for six consecutive seasons. People magazine called the show “revolutionary”, and Newsday concurred that it was a “real breakthrough.”
In 1987, Cosby attempted to return to the big screen with the spy spoof Leonard Part 6. Although Cosby himself was producer and wrote the story, he realized during production that the film was not going to be what he wanted and publicly denounced it, warning audiences to stay away.
In the 1990s and 2000s
After The Cosby Show went off the air in 1992, Cosby embarked on a number of other projects, including a revival of the classic Groucho Marx game show You Bet Your Life (1992–93) along with the TV-movie I Spy Returns (1994) and The Cosby Mysteries (1994). In the mid-1990s, he appeared as a detective in black-and-white film noir-themed commercials for Turner Classic Movies. He also made appearances in three more films, Ghost Dad (1990), The Meteor Man (1993); and Jack (1996); in addition to being interviewed in Spike Lee‘s 4 Little Girls(1997), a documentary about the racist bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church in 1963. Also in 1996, he started up a new show for CBS, Cosby, again co-starring Phylicia Rashād, his onscreen wife on The Cosby Show. Cosby co-produced the show for Carsey-Werner Productions. The show was based on the British program One Foot in the Grave. It centered on Cosby as Hilton Lucas, an iconoclastic senior citizen who tries to find a new job after being “downsized”, and in the meantime, gets on his wife’s nerves. Madeline Kahn costarred as Rashād’s goofy business partner. Cosby was hired by CBS to be the official “spokesman” for the WWJ-TV during an advertising campaign from 1995 to 1998. In addition, Cosby in 1998 became the host of Kids Say the Darndest Things. After four seasons,Cosby was canceled. The last episode aired April 28, 2000. Kids Say the Darndest Things was also canceled the same year. Cosby continued to work with CBS through a development deal and other projects.
A series for preschoolers, Little Bill, made its debut on Nickelodeon in 1999. The network renewed the popular program in November 2000. In 2001, at an age when many give serious consideration to retirement, Cosby’s agenda included the publication of a new book, as well as delivering the commencement addresses atMorris Brown College, Ohio State University, and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Also that year, he signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to develop a live-action feature film centering on the popular Fat Albert character from his 1970s cartoon series. Fat Albert was released in theaters in December 2004. In May 2007 he spoke at the Commencement of High Point University.
In the summer of 2009, Cosby hosted a comedy gala at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, the world’s largest.
Cosby met his wife Camille Hanks while he was performing stand-up in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s, and she was a student at theUniversity of Maryland. They married on January 25, 1964, and had five children: daughters Erika Ranee (b. 1965), Erinn Chalene (b. 1966), Ensa Camille (b. 1973), and Evin Harrah (b. 1976), and son Ennis William (1969–1997). His son Ennis was shot dead while changing a flat tire on the side of the Interstate 405 in Los Angeles on January 16, 1997.
Cosby is a devoted fan of the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2002, when both the Eagles’ starting and backup quarterbacks were injured, Cosby sent a letter to head coach Andy Reid, joking that he was ready to play if needed.
Cosby also attends many public events, such as the 100th Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in New York on February 2, 2007. His love for track and field athletics has also been shown with his long time sponsorship, and on-track work with the Penn Relays. For many years, Cosby has been known to work the finish line at Franklin Field and congratulate athletes.
During the 2009 NFL Draft, he celebrated the draft with former Texas Longhorns‘ wide receiver Quan Cosby as a means of support, though the two are not related. He even wore a Temple University helmet and jersey.
Bill Cosby has hosted the Los Angeles Playboy Jazz Festival since 1979. An avid musician, he’s best known as a jazz drummer although he can be seen playing bass guitar with Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis, Jr. on Hugh Hefner’s 70s talk show. His story “The Regular Way” was featured in Playboy’s December 1968 issue
Cosby has become an active member of The Jazz Foundation of America. Cosby became involved with the foundation in 2004. For several years, he has been a featured host for its annual benefit, A Great Night in Harlem, at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
Awards and honors
- On October 27, 2009 Cosby was presented with the 12th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
- In a British 2005 poll to find The Comedian’s Comedian, he was voted among the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
- He received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998.
- He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 for his contributions to television.
- He won the 2003 Bob Hope Humanitarian Award.
- In 1969, he received his third “Man of the Year” award from Harvard University‘s performance group, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
Outstanding Variety Or Musical Program – Primetime Emmys
1969 The Bill Cosby Special
Best Comedy Performance – Grammy Awards
1965 I Started Out as a Child
1966 Why Is There Air?
1969 To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With
1987 Those of You with or Without Children, You’ll Understand
Cosby has received honorary degrees from more than a dozen colleges and universities:
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, December 5, 2008.
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Carnegie Mellon University, May 20, 2007; he was also the keynote speaker for the commencement ceremony.
- Honorary Doctor of Music degree from Berklee College of Music, May 8, 2004. Cosby was also the host of the school’s 60th Anniversary Concert in January 2006.
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Baylor University, September 4, 2003, at the “Spirit Rally” for the Baylor and Central Texas communities.
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Yale University, May 26, 2003.
- Cosby received an Honorary Degree in 2003 presented by President William Harjo LoneFight from the Sisseton Wahpeton College on the Lake Traverse Reservation for his contributions to minority education.
- Cosby received an Honorary Doctorate from West Chester University of Pennsylvania during the 2003 graduation ceremony.
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Haverford College, May 2002.
- Cosby received Honorary Degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Cincinnati in 2001.
- Cosby received an Honorary Doctorate from Amherst College, May 1999. (Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa)
- Honorary LL.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, 1990. He also served as the commencement speaker in May 1997.
Views on morality and socioeconomic issues
In May 2004 after receiving an award at the celebration of the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court‘s decision that outlawed school racial segregation, Cosby made public remarks critical of African Americans who put higher priorities on sports, fashion, and “acting hard” than on education, self-respect, and self-improvement, pleading for African-American families to educate their children on the many different aspects of American culture.
In “Pound Cake,” Cosby, who holds a doctorate in education, asked that African American parents begin teaching their children better morals at a younger age. Cosby told theWashington Times, “Parenting needs to come to the forefront. If you need help and you don’t know how to parent, we want to be able to reach out and touch” (DeBose, Brian).[page needed] Richard Leiby of The Washington Post reported, “Bill Cosby was anything but politically correct in his remarks Monday night at a Constitution Hall bash commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.”
Cosby again came under sharp criticism, and again he was largely unapologetic for his stance when he made similar remarks during a speech in a July 1 meeting commemorating the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. During that speech, he admonished blacks for not assisting or concerning themselves with the individuals who are involved with crime or have counter-productive aspirations. He further described those who needed attention as “blacks [who] had forgotten the sacrifices of those in the Civil Rights Movement.” The speech was featured in the documentary 500 Years Later which set the speech to cartoon visuals.
Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote a book in 2005 entitled Is Bill Cosby Right or Is the Black Middle Class Out of Touch? In the book, Dyson wrote that Cosby was overlooking larger social factors that reinforce poverty and associated crime; factors such as deteriorating schools, stagnating wages, dramatic shifts in the economy, offshoring and downsizing, chronic underemployment, and job and capital flight. Dyson suggested Cosby’s comments “betray classist, elitist viewpoints rooted in generational warfare.”
Cornel West defended Cosby and his remarks, saying, “[H]e’s speaking out of great compassion and trying to get folk to get on the right track, ’cause we’ve got some brothers and sisters who are not doing the right things, just like in times in our own lives, we don’t do the right thing. … He is trying to speak honestly and freely and lovingly, and I think that’s a very positive thing.
In a 2008 interview, Cosby mentioned Chicago; Atlanta; Philadelphia; Oakland; Detroit; and Springfield, Massachusetts among the cities where crime was high and young African-American men were being murdered and jailed in disproportionate numbers. Cosby stood his ground against criticism and affirmed that African-American parents were continuing to fail to inculcate proper standards of moral behavior. Cosby still lectures to black communities (usually at churches) about his frustrations with certain problems prevalent in underprivileged urban communities such as taking part in illegal drugs, teenage pregnancy, Black Entertainment Television, high school dropouts, anti-intellectualism, gangsta rap, vulgarity, thievery, offensive clothing, vanity, parental alienation, single-parenting and failing to live up to the ideals of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African-American ancestors that preceded Generation X. Cosby criticizes those African Americans who associate his ideals with race treachery.
- Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! (1963)
- I Started Out as a Child (1964)
- Why Is There Air? (1965)
- Wonderfulness (1966)
- Revenge (1967)
- To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With (1968)
- 200 M.P.H. (1968)
- 8:15 12:15 (1969)
- It’s True! It’s True! (1969)
- Sports (1969)
- Live: Madison Square Garden Center (1970)
- When I Was a Kid (1971)
- For Adults Only (1971)
- Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs (1971)
- Inside the Mind of Bill Cosby (1972)
- Fat Albert (1973)
- My Father Confused Me… What Must I Do? What Must I Do? (1977)
- Bill’s Best Friend (1978)
- Bill Cosby: Himself (1982)
- Those of You With or Without Children, You’ll Understand (1986)
- Oh, Baby (1991)
- Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings (1967)
- Bill Cosby Sings Hooray for the Salvation Army Band! (1968)
- Badfoot Brown & the Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band (1971)
- At Last Bill Cosby Really Sings (1974)
- Bill Cosby Is Not Himself These Days (1976)
- Disco Bill (1977)
- Where You Lay Your Head (1990)
- My Appreciation (1991)
- Hello Friend: To Ennis, With Love (1997)
- Quincy Jones & Bill Cosby – The Original Jam Sessions 1969 (2004)
- Quincy Jones & Bill Cosby – The New Mixes Vol. 1 (2004)
- State of Emergency (2009)
- Keep Standing (2010)