Bill Cosby is an American actor, comedian, television producer and activist best known for his iconic eighties sitcom The Cosby Show.
A veteran stand-up performer, he got his start at various clubs, then landed a vanguard role in the 1960s action show I Spy. He later starred in his own series, The Bill Cosby Show, in the late 1960s.
He was one of the major characters on the children's television show for its first two seasons, and created the humorous educational cartoon series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, about a group of young friends growing up in the city.
Cosby also acted in numerous films, although none has received the acclaim of his television work.
During the 1980s, Cosby produced and starred in what is considered one of the decade's defining cultural sitcoms, The Cosby Show, which aired from 1984 to 1992.
The sitcom featured an upper-middle class African-American family without resorting to the kinds of stereotypes previously seen among African-Americans in prime-time television.
While some argued that The Cosby Show ignored the issues of racial inequity still prevalent in society, many agreed that it showcased positive role models.
Cosby was active in showbusiness in the 1990s, starring in Cosby, which first aired in 1996, and hosting Kids Say the Darndest Things, which began in 1998, as well as making more movies. He has also continued appearing on the stand-up circuit.
His material consists mainly of anecdotal tales, often dealing with his upbringing and raising his own family, and he is known for having a clean, kid-friendly routine.
His good-natured, fatherly image has made him a popular personality and earned him the nickname of "America's Dad," and he has also been a sought-after spokesman for products like Jell-O Pudding, Kodak film, Coca-Cola, and the defunct retail chain Service Merchandise.
Cosby did so many commercials during the 1980's that Dennis Miller (on Saturday Night Live's weekend update) joked that Cosby had broken his "no awards" rule to accept the "John Houseman anything for a buck celebrity endorsement award", making the exception because they had paid him a lot of money).
Also, on Married... With Children, main character Al Bundy (during a brief period of fame) wore product patches all over his shirt and announced he'd "hawk more products than Bill Cosby."
Cosby was the captain of the baseball and track & field teams at Mary Channing Wister Elementary School in Philadelphia, as well as 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, not to mention his dedication to joking in class, 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, which he liked, but could not see himself doing the rest of his life. Subsequently, he joined the Navy, serving at the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia and at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
Bill is a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.
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.
He immediately realised 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, and studied physical education while running track and playing fullback on the football team.
However, he had continued to hone his talent for humour, joking with fellow enlistees in the service and then with college friends.
When he began tending bar 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 as a sophomore to pursue a career in comedy. His parents were not pleased, but 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.
Later, the university would grant him his bachelor's degree on the basis of "life experience."
Cosby's career took off quickly, and he lined up dates in Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Washington DC, among others.
He received national exposure on NBC's 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.
He was able to return to finish his BA from Temple and received an MA and Ed.D. from the University of Massachusetts in 1972 and 1977, respectively.
Cosby's Ed.D dissertation was 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".
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..... So I figure I'm doing as much for good race relations as the next guy."
In 1965, Cosby achieved a first for African-Americans when he co-starred with Robert Culp in I Spy, an adventure show that reflected cold-war America's seemingly endless appetite for James Bond-style espionage fantasies.
But Cosby's presence as the first black star of a dramatic television series made I Spy unique; Cosby and NBC executives were concerned that some affiliates might be unwilling to carry the series.
At the beginning of the 1965 season, however, only four stations - in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama - declined the show. But the rest of the country was taken with the show's exotic locales and the authentic chemistry of the stars, and it became one of the ratings hits of that television season.
I Spy finished among the 20 most-watched shows that year, and Cosby was honoured with an Emmy award for outstanding actor in a dramatic series, as he would be again for the next two consecutive years.
Although ostensibly focused on Culp's character, the show had clearly become a vehicle for his co-star.
Yet throughout the series' three-year run Cosby was repeatedly confronted with the question of race. For him it was enough that I Spy portrayed two men who worked as equals despite their different races; but critics took the show to task for not having a black character engage the racial issues that inflamed the country at that time.
Cosby was relieved when the series ended, enabling him to concentrate on his family (he and wife Camille had two daughters by this time) and to return to live performing.
The Bill Cosby Show and the 1970s
He still pursued a variety of television projects: as a regular guest host on The Tonight Show and 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 (he had actually majored in physical education at Temple University); while only a modest critical success, the show was a ratings hit, finishing 11th in its first season.
After The Bill Cosby Show left the air, Cosby returned to his education, actively pursuing an advanced degree in education from the University of Massachusetts.
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, he was back in prime time with a variety series, The New Bill Cosby Show, but 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, running from 1972 to 1979, then from 1979 to 1984 as The New Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.
Some schools used the program as a teaching tool, and Cosby himself wrote his thesis on it in order to obtain his doctorate in Education in 1977.
Also during the 1970s, Cosby and other African American actors, including Sidney Poitier, joined forces to make some successful comedy films which 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) costarring Raquel 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 regular on children's public television programs starting in the 70's, hosting the "Picture Pages" segments which lasted into the early 80s.
The Cosby Show and the 1980s
Cosby's greatest television success came in 1984 with the debut of The Cosby Show. For Cosby the new situation comedy was a response to the increasingly violent fare the networks usually offered.
Cosby insisted on and received total creative control of the series, and he was involved in every aspect of the series.
Not surprisingly, 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, nonstereotypical 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 familiar question of relevance came up again but was more or less drowned out by praise for the series.
People magazine called the show "revolutionary," and Newsday concurred that it was a "real breakthrough." Cosby's formula for success, as had been the case throughout his career, was to appeal to the common humanity of his audience rather than to the racial differences that might divide it.
In 1987, Cosby attempted to return to the big screen with the spy spoof Leonard Part 6. Unfortunately, Cosby realised during production that the film was not going to be what he wanted and publicly denounced it, warning audiences to "stay away" on talk shows.
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 notably scripted revival of the classic Groucho Marx game show You Bet Your Life (1992-1993) along with the ill-fated TV-movie I Spy Returns (1994) and The Cosby Mysteries (1994).
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 Rashad, his onscreen wife on The Cosby Show (early on she replaced Telma Hopkins). Cosby co-produced the show for Carsey-Werner Productions.
The show was based on a cynical British program called One Foot in the Grave, but Cosby lightened the humour. 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 co-starred as Rashad's goofy business partner.
In addition, Cosby in 1998 became the host of Kids Say the Darndest Things. After four solid seasons, Kids Say the Darndest Things was canceled. The last episode aired April 28, 2000. Cosby continued to work with CBS through a development deal and other projects.
His wellspring of creativity became manifest again with a series for preschoolers, Little Bill, which made its debut on Nickelodeon in 1999. The network renewed the popular program in November of 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 at Morris Brown College and at Ohio State University.
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 theatres in December of 2004.
In May of 2007 he spoke at the Commencement of High Point University.
Cosby met his wife Camille while he was performing stand-up in Washington D.C., in the early 1960s, and she was a student at the University of Maryland. They married on 25 January 1964, and had five children: daughters Erika Ranee, Erinn Chalene, Ensa Camille, and Evin Harrah, and son Ennis William.
His son Ennis was shot to death while changing a flat tire on the side of a Los Angeles freeway on 16 January 1997.
In early 1997 fans were startled when a 22-year-old woman, Autumn Jackson, tried to extort $40-million from Cosby, claiming he was her biological father.
He admitted to having a one-time fling with Jackson's mother and had provided money to the family until Jackson turned 18, though he disputed the paternity claim from the start.
She was found guilty of extortion and sentenced to 26 months in prison; two accomplices were sentenced to five years and three months. The convictions were overturned in June 1999 on a technicality. The case was retried later, and the convictions were returned.
On 8 November 2006, the media reported that Cosby had settled a lawsuit with a woman alleging he had sexually assaulted her. The woman claimed that Cosby assaulted her at his mansion in Cheltenham in early 2004 after giving her some blue pills. The woman said the pills had rendered her semiconscious, and that the comedian molested her. She said she awoke to find her bra undone and her clothes in disarray.
In and around the same time reports 12 women alleging that they were sexually assaulted by Cosby surfaced, but none of the complainants elected to proceed with criminal charges.
Cosby is an active alumni supporter of his Alma Mater, Temple University, and in particular their men's basketball team, whose games Cosby frequently attends (particularly during the team's glory days under coach John Chaney, who is a close friend of Cosby).
Cosby is a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan. Recently, when both the Eagles' starting and backup quarterbacks were injured, Cosby sent some of his old football gear to head coach Andy Reid, joking 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.
Cosby maintains a home in Shelburne, Massachusetts.
Bill Cosby also has been hosting the Los Angeles Playboy Jazz Festival since 1979.
He was the first major entertainer to cancel an appearance in Cincinnati after a boycott was called in response to the 2001 Cincinnati Riots. His support of this cause encouraged other stars to follow.
Cosby has been critical of what he sees as the African-American community's acceptance of fatherless single parent households, high crime rates, and high illiteracy rates. He encouraged a more proactive effort from African-Americans to reduce those problems.
He expanded upon his remarks in San Jose, California during an event to promote the Read-2-Lead Classic. The way his speeches were portrayed by popular media provoked a great deal of anger from some African Americans.
Cosby was the impetus for the formation of ARISE Detroit! when, in a 13 January 2005, speech at Wayne County Community College he challenged black Detroiters to stop blaming white people for problems they could solve themselves.
"It's not what they're doing to us. It's what we're not doing," the entertainer told the audience of nearly 2,000 people. A little more than a year later, ARISE Detroit! was formed to address this issue.
The Pound Cake Speech
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 segregation (Wu, Frank H.), Cosby made public remarks critical of those blacks who put higher priorities on sports, fashion, and "acting hard" than on education, self-respect, and self-improvement.
He has made a plea for African American families to educate their children on the many different aspects of American culture. According to the Washington Times, he has had a long history of endeavours to advance African Americans.
In "Pound Cake," Cosby, whose doctorate degree is in education, asked that African American parents begin teaching their children better morals at a younger age. He directed this address to the leaders in the lower and middle economic classes of the African-American community.
Cosby told reporters of the Washington 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".
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 vs. Board of Education decision."
Dallas Morning News writer James Ragland was among a number of respected black columnists who heavily praised Cosby's comments, remarking that "maybe more of us [African-Americans] should be eating whatever Mr. Cosby is putting in his Jell-O."
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 Rainbow Coalition 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 talk was interrupted several times by applause and received praise from leaders such as Jesse Jackson.