Stand Up Guy

09.24.14 9:55 AM ET

A Full-Length Bill Cosby Portrait: From Track Star to Ugly Sweaters

The comedian’s biographer, Mark Whitaker, talks about Cosby’s eccentricity, his trademark storytelling, his views on race, his litigiousness, and those ugly Huxtable sweaters.

With I Spy in the ’60s and The Cosby Show in the ’80s, Bill Cosby broke racial barriers on television by underplaying race.

“He felt it was important to show that black people could be successful, have healthy families and home lives, and that they could interact confidently with people of other races,” says his biographer, the noted journalist Mark Whitaker, who examines Cosby’s career and attitudes toward race in Cosby: His Life and Times.

Whitaker and I spoke recently about Cosby’s long career as an actor and comedian, the way he interacted with race on and off screen, and how he got those ugly sweaters.

What was Bill Cosby doing in his 20s?

He goes to a track meet and goes up to where the Temple Owls team was competing, introduces himself to the track coach, and convinces the coach to give him a track scholarship. So at the age of 23, he enrolled at Temple University. By this point, he had gotten interested in comedy. In his remedial English class, he wrote these comic essays that the teacher actually read aloud in class. He was a bartender at the time and started telling his jokes in the bar. The manager of the bar also managed a club next door where comics would come on between musical acts, and he convinces the manager to let him do that.

While he’s performing at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, The New York Times does a feature on him. Cosby hires a manager named Roy Silver, who gets him gigs on the weekends. At the end of his junior year, he drops out of Temple and becomes a full-time comic. He would have been the first person in his family to graduate from college, but he does it anyway. The following summer, 1963, he gets on The Tonight Show.

Do you draw much of a distinction between Cosby as a performance artist, a storyteller, and a stand-up comic?

When he goes to Greenwich Village, he has a mixture of material. He’s still working out what his act is going to be. He has a lot of material similar to Dick Gregory, the hot black comic of the moment. Cosby is telling race jokes, and even The New York Times piece highlights his race jokes. When the piece comes out and he sees it in print, he looks like just another race comic. He wants to have his own comedic voice, and he’s already started to become a storyteller. That’s when he commits to this distinctive style of comedy of telling funny stories and doing comedy that is neither formulaic, political, or dirty.

Cosby’s characters in I Spy and The Cosby Show either transcend or sidestep race. Which do you think it is?

In both cases, there was criticism that he sidestepped race, but I would say he transcended race. Both Sheldon Leonard, who created the show, and Robert Culp, who was his co-star, were socially conscious. In the pilot, Cosby was so bad that the network [NBC] wanted to replace him, and Leonard and Culp rescued him. The creators decided not to call attention to the fact that one of them was black and one of them was white. Just the idea in 1965, 1966, just after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, to show a black man and white man working together, both with a license to kill, was itself an extremely positive thing for race relations.

Originally, Cosby was supposed to be much more of a sidekick. Culp pushed to make it much more 50/50. Culp was also a writer on the show and wrote deliberately to give Cosby’s character a bigger role. He even wanted Cosby’s character to get the girl, to have a romantic element. None of the executives wanted Cosby’s character to have a romantic life. Cosby does episodes with Cicely Tyson, with Leslie Uggams. People start seeing black people having a relationship in primetime TV, which had never happened before.

Was it different with The Cosby Show?

With The Cosby Show, it was an implicitly powerful thing to show a black family that was not a cartoon, where the parents were highly educated, had a stable two-income home, interacted comfortably with white neighbors. And racial elements—not conflict but more black culture—had a big part in the show. Black reviews remember this. There were entire storylines about jazz, dance, black art. Dizzy Gillespie appeared on the show. The Huxtables went to auctions and bought black art. There was also the attention the show paid to historically black colleges and universities, which were really under threat in the ’80s. Cosby decides to make a fictional black college—Hillman—central to the show. A Different World [a Cosby Show spinoff] was principally about that college.

Cosby catches heat from whites for not addressing race in his TV shows and in his comedy, and he catches heat from blacks for being a scold when he talks about the disintegration of black families. Why do so many put the burden of speaking to race issues on Cosby?

In the first case, people start questioning him on why he doesn’t talk more about race from the very beginning. He gets interviewed even before I Spy goes on the air by a reporter from Jet magazine about shouldn’t he be challenging white people for racism in his comedy, and Cosby says “What’s wrong with a black comic just wanting to be funny?” By being non-racial, he actually was doing something positive. At the same time, he bristled at the idea of why can’t he have his own distinctive voice.

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[At a 2004 NAACP event], he got worked up listening to speech after speech talk about the heroes of Brown v. Board of Education. He’s getting very emotional as he listens to the other speeches, and when it’s his turn to speak he goes off. He expresses himself in very strong terms. The underlying views—black people have to stop waiting for the system to change and start taking care of their own lives, you have to use proper English in a job interview—all of that stuff is pouring out. There’s a line where he’s talking about kids who go to jail and he says kids are getting shot and sent to jail for stealing a piece of pound cake. The news reports of the speech quoted that line, so it became the pound cake speech.

In Cosby’s life, conditions for blacks improved significantly, and relations between blacks and whites improved significantly—maybe not enough but significantly. Bill Cosby in his own way has played a big role in that—helping white people become more comfortable with black people and helping middle-class black people to be more self-confident. During that same 50-year period, conditions for a segment of the black community—the inner city—have gotten worse. That’s the world he came out of. I think he is enormously frustrated for the people he grew up with [and that’s what lies] behind a lot of the anger and passion that he has had in the last 10 years.

Bill Cosby was already a known quantity when The Cosby Show began in 1984. Was his public persona compatible with the American dad figure he played on the show, or was he moving into new territory?

Yes and no. The ’70s had been a very rocky decade for him. He ended the ’60s as one of the biggest African-American stars in the country. His manager, Roy Silvers, convinced him to put all of his money into this production company, and he lost all but $50,000 of it. He had four consecutive TV flops in the ’70s. He did stand-up in the ’70s and did a lot of advertising. The thing people remembered most was how he interacted with children in those Jell-O commercials, so people were ready to see him as a dad.

Where did Fat Albert come from?

Fat Albert was first introduced by Cosby on one of his comedy albums. At first it was a character in a routine about a street game. Fat Albert was not actually a real person. There was something about the routine and the “hey hey hey” that just took off. People loved that voice and that character from the beginning, and Cosby starts to develop ideas. He was going to open a Fat Albert hamburger stand. When he was riding high at NBC in the late ’60s, he got a deal to make a Fat Albert special. There was an experimental cartoonist named Ken Mundy who mixed live footage with line drawings, which is a very weird depiction of Fat Albert’s world that was not a big success. Then a few years later, Filmation approached Cosby about a more traditional cartoon for Saturday morning, which is what leads to the Fat Albert that everybody remembers.

You were working on the book for a while before Cosby agreed for you to interview him, right?

When I first started working on it, I approached an adviser who had worked on The Cosby Show and said nobody had written a major book about him and I’d like to do it. He offered to talk to Cosby and came back a week later and said he didn’t want to do it. And then Cosby’s lawyer called and said I wasn’t going to get any help from Cosby. For a year I did research and talked to a lot of people, and I started working on the parts of the story where I could get somewhere without his cooperation.

I periodically checked in with Cosby’s publicist, and about a year into my research and reporting the publicist started sending me emails to call my attention to articles that “Mr. C” wanted me to read. Then one day Cosby’s lawyer called and said Cosby wanted to talk to me. I didn’t hear anything for a month or so, and then the day I was leaving CNN, my assistant rushed in and said Bill Cosby was on the phone. He said, “Congratulations.” I said, “What are you congratulating me for?” He said, “When I write my routines, I do something called loading the boat. I’m going to help you load the boat.”

How many times did you talk to him?

I had probably six phone interviews. They were always unplanned. He would call, I would drop everything, and we would be on the phone for an hour or so. His publicist called and said Mr. C would be performing in South Carolina and did I want to go with him, so I said yes and dropped everything on my schedule. I got to travel with him for a few days. And then we met face to face one other time.

My challenge in the time I had with him was to keep him telling stories that I needed for the book. Even though I had access and cooperation from him, the book was mostly reported from other people who know him. It’s not Bill Cosby’s story as told to Mark Whitaker at all.

How did ugly sweaters happen?

[Laughs.] That’s another funny story. One of the people I interviewed was his props guy [from The Cosby Show], who pointed out that Cosby was always looking for not just funny dialogue but things that were visually funny. He always wanted things around on the set that he could use to be funny. A friend named Josephine Premice gave him a sweater by a Dutch designer—not a famous one—who made sweaters out of all these different materials. And Cosby showed up on a taping day wearing one of the sweaters. He gets all this reaction and decides to start wearing these sweaters. He just decided he was going to make that a feature of the character. Some of the sweaters he thought were true works of art, and some he thought were just tacky or funny.

The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal reviews both dinged you for not including the sexual assault allegations against Cosby and the fact that he had settled a lawsuit with at least one of the accusers. Why didn’t you include that?

Three reasons: One, I didn’t want to write a tell-all. I wanted to write mostly about his professional career and the impact that has had.

Two, his representatives were very clear that to the degree I did get into his private life that I had to have iron-clad, independent reporting. In the case of his relationship with the mother of Autumn Jackson, who claimed to be his daughter and tried to extort money from him and was eventually convicted, I wrote at length about that case. I obtained court records, and a long, confessional interview he did with Dan Rather that CNN never aired. With the other allegations, there were no other witnesses.

The third reason is that I knew that apart from the legal issues involved, if I got into any detail about those allegations in a he-said-she-said way, it would open the door for everyone who writes about this book to just repeat those allegations, and I didn’t want to be responsible for that.

Did you get the impression that Cosby would litigate anything he found in your book to be controversial?

I got the shot across the bow at the beginning, and I knew from his history that he tended to be very litigious. I knew from his representatives that he was not going to talk about sexual matters. They were clear that if I was going to say anything about it, I had to be on very solid ground. I sent his publicist a galley of the book after it was finished. They weren’t wild about the fact that I was writing about Autumn Jackson, but they didn’t try to make me take it out. They knew I had solid sources. I personally took that as a vindication of the care I had taken in making sure I had solid, independent sourcing.

Did you come away liking him or less after everything you learned and after all your dealings with him?

In my dealings with him, he was very pleasant. He’s very eccentric. He called at all hours. I never knew when he would call. I never knew how long he would last before he said, “Okay, bye.” I found him very honest in both our conversations and in interviews he had done over the years. He’s not a cagey guy. He’ll sometimes answer by telling a story, but it’s a candid story—not something just to make him look good. And his people didn’t try to alter the book, so that was very honest. I saw evidence in traveling with him and heard from dozens of sources about his acts of generosity, and I was quite impressed by that.