I was a bumpkin. Not everyone from Denver is a bumpkin, but I was. I had very little style, or sophistication (as evidenced by the exciting tan pants and brilliant yellow polo shirt I wore to my audition). I did, however, have huge aspirations. I had a subscription to GQ magazine, collected art, listened to a bit of jazz, and could always cook. However, I never seemed able to put it all together into one coherent, urbane, or cosmopolitan man. I bummed around in jeans, old sneakers, and shirts I’d had since college. I had two suits I had purchased the previous year, but they hung in my closet, unused because I never went anywhere. I wasn’t on anyone’s party list. I didn’t go dancing, or clubbing, and the places I knew to get dinner were mostly coffee shops, or hamburger joints. And on those few occasion that I did find myself out, it was awkward — not the situations, ME. I was awkward. I was not adept at (and still am horrible at) small talk; I tended to latch on to anyone who would speak to me and keep talking. I was even worse around a pretty woman. My lack of social sophistication meant that I tended to stumble into dating relationships rather than glide into them with wit, charm, and silky smooth talk.
My friend Dale was frustrated by this, to no end. He just couldn’t understand why I didn’t have women lined up outside my door. To tell the truth, Corey notwithstanding, I was a bit frustrated by this as well. Dale was good looking, dark, muscular, and about four feet tall. Nevertheless, Dale had more women than I could keep up with. He would go out to eat by himself and apparently, women would come over to him and drop their panties on the table. “Why did that never happen to me,” I wondered. “I eat dinner by myself all the time and women NEVER drop their panties on my table.” I think the fact that I tended to walk around depressed, with a scowl on my face may have had something to do with women not approaching me, that and the fact that panty-dropping women simply don’t hang out in burger joints and pizza shops.
In spite of having lived in New York for several years, I was also a bit intimidated by the city. I tended to stay close to home. By that, I mean I ventured only where I was familiar, which meant I went to the same shops, took the same trains, walked the same way, everywhere I went. I had a small circle of friends and when they were unavailable, I stayed in my apartment, ordered General Tso’s chicken, and watched television.
In short, I was probably the most boring guy in New York City. But again, I aspired for more, much more.
Imagine: One day you are a bumpkin, riding the subway, walking the streets of New York, and running errands in complete boring anonymity. The very next day, you are chased down the street by people seeking your autograph, beautiful women are vying for your attention, and men want to be your friend. That was how quickly things changed for me. The day before my first episode aired, I walked the streets of Brooklyn, did my shopping, and no one paid me any attention. The day after my first episode aired, on those same streets, I was surrounded by excited fans, who wanted me to sign pieces of paper and shake their hands. God snapped his fingers.
When word got around to my friends that I was going to be on The Cosby Show, every would be sage had a nugget of wisdom to whisper in my ear. It’s absolutely amazing how much advice people who have never been on television have to offer to people who get on television. If only money had flowed to me like advice. The council I received tended to boil down to one thing, “Don’t change,” which sounds steeped in sagacity. In truth, such advice was shallow as hell, not because those offering it were shallow, but because the suggestion lacked the finesse needed to navigate the complexity of what was happening to me at the time. What all of those fountains of wisdom didn’t realize and what I would soon learn, was that it was going to be very difficult — I’d say nearly impossible — not to change when the people around me changed.
More significantly, I was a 27 year old struggling actor, coming out of a three year relationship, with very little money in the bank, and believe it or not, it’s not much fun being the most boring guy in a borough of five million people. I really wanted to change; welcomed change; looked forward to change. In fact, change couldn’t come fast enough. I didn’t want to sit in my apartment. I wanted to go places, meet people and make new friends. I wanted some excitement. And damn it, I wanted to know what it was like for women to drop their panties on my table when I went out to eat. But the change I sought was a change in my circumstances, not a change in my personality. What I got was a bit of both, or depending who you talk to, a bit of the former and a lot of the latter.
There was a large gap between who I was and who I wanted to be. That gap – that hole – was where my self identity lay. I was, to put it bluntly, a man unsure of who he was, living in the purgatory of self-realization. Try as they might, none of the arm-chair sages could walk me through the seemingly impossible task of getting out of that hole – finding myself – while not changing. I was going to have to take my lumps and learn for myself.
Soon after my first episode aired, long forgotten friends suddenly began to call. Old crushes and lovers rang me up, eager to get reacquainted.
“This is Marilyn. I don’t know if you remember me…”
“Of course, I remember you.” (What I mostly remember is that I had it bad for you, but you “just wanted to be friends.”)
And on it went.
People began to defer to my opinion. “Joseph, what do YOU think?”
“Huh? I wasn’t really paying attention.”
And of course there was the inevitable envy.
Unfortunately, just a few months into my first year, I lost a dear friend to the green-eyed monster. In fairness to my friend Beth, there were several issues which led to the end of our friendship. However, envy was chief among them.
Beth and I had met in acting class when we were both right out of college. Beth was above average in height, with a nice figure, and a face that was more handsome than pretty. Her blond curls were cut short and hung like a loose mop on her head. Most of all, she had a quick smile and a great sense of humor. We became friends, and over the course of a couple years, we hung out together, met for lunch, and caught the occasional movie together. There was nothing romantic between us. I wouldn’t have minded. As I’ve said, Beth was quite pretty. Had Beth hinted any interest, I would have been willing to play and play hard. She didn’t hint. And the truth was, we just didn’t seem to have that kind of energy together. We liked each other, had fun together, shared things in common, but when it came to romance, her head looked one way and my eyes looked somewhere else. We were both perfectly happy with a platonic friendship. Our friendship even continued through her courtship, engagement, and eventual marriage to her husband Peter.
In addition to her looks, Beth was a wonderful actor, I mean truly gifted. I loved watching her in class and as her career grew, I loved watching her on the big screen. I cheered her every success and although she tried, ultimately she was unable to return the encouragement. When I called to tell her I got the job on The Cosby Show, she was surprisingly cool. I expected cheers and jumping up and down — the kind of support she received from me — what I got was a tepid “Congratulations. That’s great.”
Sometime early on in that first season, Beth and Peter invited me to dinner to meet a woman he worked with. I am fairly certain that I was Beth’s only Black friend and, though I can’t be sure, I would bet my house that the woman in Peter’s office was the only Black woman he knew. Clearly, that meant the two of us would meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Yes, that sounds cynical, but I had been down this road before and all the signs were there. Still, I agreed to meet for dinner.
I didn’t know any nice places to eat, so Beth chose the restaurant, a French place in the theater district called Un Deux Trois. I was actually excited to eat there. I had passed the restaurant a thousand times and wondered, “What would it be like to eat in a fancy French restaurant’?” I walked into the restaurant filled with excitement, “Who knows,” I thought. “Beth’s friend might really be bangin’!” Of course, there was no way; that only happens in the movies. I walked in, took one look at the woman and wasn’t the least bit attracted – in any way. She was rather plain looking. I recall that she had long black hair, but I can’t recall very much else about her. I’m sure she was a nice lady, but she was not for me – especially given the caliber of women I was suddenly meeting and dating.
Nevertheless, the four of us had a nice dinner. Our waitress was actually a new friend of mine, one of the stand-ins on the show. When it came time to pay the bill, Beth and Peter picked up the check, which I thought was very nice of them, so I volunteered to leave the tip. The next day, when I called to thank them for a nice evening, Beth told me that Peter was angry with me because I hadn’t paid for his friend.
“We weren’t prepared to treat everyone to dinner.”
“You shouldn’t have offered to pick up the check.”
“A gentleman would have paid for our friend.”
“Beth, had I invited her to dinner, I would have happily paid for her. But I didn’t even know her prior to the dinner. And I didn’t pick the restaurant.” Un Deux Trois was way above the price range of any restaurant I would have chosen. I knew where to get a good hamburger and that was about it.
“That doesn’t matter. You didn’t comport yourself as a gentleman.” (I can still remember how she spat out that word, “comport,” so waspy and so dripping with condescension.) “Besides,” She continued, “She doesn’t make enough money to afford that dinner.”
“You chose the restaurant! Besides, I did pay for her cab home.”
It didn’t matter. As we talked, I soon realized that this was a minor offense compared to the two major offenses, both of which she devoted a great deal of her lecture to: “You didn’t even give her a chance. You made up your mind before you even talked to her!”
“Yep! She isn’t my type.”
“Well, what is your type?”
“Not her!” I then went on to offer that I should be allowed to like whomever I choose without her or her husband’s consent.
Her biggest grievance, however, was that I was too excited about the things that were happening in my life. It wasn’t that I talked too much, it was that I talked too much about the people I was meeting and the things that were changing in my life. Apparently, it was rude of me to share my excitement with my friends. Beth cautioned me not to get full of myself. “This job isn’t going to last forever,” she warned, “and in no time at all you could be doing dinner theater in Poughkeepsie.” There it was. The ultimate theater put down. In show business culture, suggesting that an actor will end up doing dinner theater is a huge insult, doing dinner theater in Poughkeepsie is an even bigger aspersion. I’ve never been to Poughkeepsie, so I don’t know what’s wrong with the city. However, whatever is wrong with the city, it is apparently a bad place in which to do dinner theater. The sum of the conversation was that Peter didn’t want her to be my friend anymore.
An actor friend of mine once told me that in every relationship he reserves the right to say, “Fuck you!” So, after the waspy and condescending lecture and the insult about dinner theater, I took a page out of my actor friend’s book and, in a much more polite way than my actor friend suggests, said “Fuck you!” I hung up the phone and shrugged my shoulders.
There are many layers to this story; issues of race, etiquette, money, ego, and envy all played a role. However, the one thing that was different about our relationship, the joker in the deck, as it were, was my new job. Had I not been on The Cosby Show, the entire evening would have played out differently. I suspect Beth and her husband would have chosen a less expensive restaurant. Their friend would have been less star-struck and actually said more than two words during the dinner. Television notoriety or not, there was still no way I was going to date her, but she may have felt more at ease during the meal. Finally, had I not been on The Cosby Show, we would have talked about Beth and her career during dinner.
The loss of my friendship with Beth was very sad. Four or five years later, I bumped into Beth at a commercial audition. I auditioned before her, so I waited for her to finish and the two of us had an awkward and superficial conversation on the street corner. “Hi. How have you been?” Blah, blah blah. Finally, I said, “Beth, I miss you.”
She smiled and said, “I miss you too.” Those were the last words we’ve ever spoken to each other.
Next…Celebrity has its’ privileges