THE SHARK FILLED WATERS

The train was pulling out of the station. The Cosby Show was, as the Beetles sang, “my ticket to ride.” I was eager for all the new opportunities for fun and devilment that were sure to come my way as I fulfilled my dream of becoming a star on television. What I didn’t realize was what the pursuit of that dream would cast me in dollars and how many people were happy to take my money to “help” me. I was a six foot two inch, 190 pound steer, fat and ready to be sliced into steaks.  

Ron was of course taking his ten percent. The government also took their share right off the top. I had expected those expenses. What really cost me, however, was falling into the Tantalus pool, otherwise known as Public Relations. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the money I tossed out the window in the business management game. I put a lot of money into other people’s pockets. 

Before my first episode aired, I had been interviewed by Star Magazine, talked with Bryant Gumbel on Good Morning America, and most importantly, appeared on the cover of Jet Magazine. Wow! On the cover of Jet!

Jet Magazine is a weekly entertainment and culture magazine that (prior to going fully digital) was delivered to almost every Black household in the country, or so it seemed. I dare say there are very few Black homes or Black barbershops that did not have Jet on the coffee table. I had grown up reading Jet. Actually, I didn’t really read Jet. What I mostly did with Jet was turn directly to the “Beauty of the week” page and fantasize about marrying one of the beautiful, young, bikini-clad women in the photographs. There are still beauties that I recall fondly all these years later. After indulging in that fantasy, I engaged in another by thumbing through the magazine looking at photo’s of black celebrities, scanning the articles about black show business life and dreaming of the day I would be on those pages. Appearing on the cover of Jet didn’t necessarily mean I had made it, but it was certainly a sign that I was headed in the right direction. That cover meant that every black person in America would see my face.

After that cover, my best friend suggested that I hire a publicist. “You need to take advantage of this opportunity and get your name out there,” he said. Where is out “there?” “There” is in the minds and on the tongues of people who hire actors. Publicity  was going to raise my profile, which was going to lead to more work, which would lead to more money and more celebrity. At least that is supposed to be the way it works. The one thing I didn’t want was to look back on this experience and feel that I hadn’t maximized the opportunity. I asked around and eventually ended up hiring Suzanne Rosewood. Suzanne was a tall, dynamic black woman, who was the Black publicist at the time. At one time, Suzanne had represented Malcolm Jamal-Warner. She also boasted of having represented Eddie Murphy, Miles Davis, and several other very big black stars. “If she was good enough for Eddie Murphy,” I reasoned, “Well, then she is certainly good enough for me. In fact, she is probably exactly who I need.”

Of course, as I was signing the contract, what I didn’t realize was that Eddie didn’t need a publicist, neither did Miles Davis. These men were huge stars! Suzanne hadn’t helped make them huge, she had more-or-less fielded requests for them once they were already stars. That is not a jab at Suzanne (although I do have a few). Nor do I mean to imply that Suzanne lacked professional acumen, just that what Suzanne did for Eddie Murphy was nowhere near what she was going to have to do for me, even if, as I soon discovered, I was paying the same as Eddie.

Suzanne was going to get my name in the paper, to get people talking about me. One of the ways in which she accomplished that was to take me to events like record release parties, restaurant openings, and charitable dinners. Celebrities big and small would attend these events, along with lots of photographers, magazine editors, record producers, and people who wanted to network with all of these people. Suzanne would orchestrate me being photographed with famous people in hopes that these photographs would be published in magazines and newspapers. The idea was that posing with genuine celebrities was supposed to make my celebrity genuine – make me look like I belonged to the club. I’m not sure how many of those photos were ever published. I did, however, end up with lots of photos on my wall of me posing with famous people, so there is that.

The first event Suzanne took me to was the launch of the Black lifestyles magazine, Emerge. Suzanne introduced me around the VIP room. Showing up to an event and being escorted to the VIP room was already blowing my mind. I had never been to a VIP room. I always wondered about it: What does the VIP room look like? What happens in the VIP room? The answer is, not much and sometimes nothing at all. (A year later, I was in Minneapolis and a friend had the idea to go to the nightclub owned by the musician Prince. We were let into the club and immediately escorted to the VIP room, where we stood…alone…in an empty room, overlooking the dance floor.)

During these events, my tendency to retreat into myself began to appear, but with Suzanne escorting me, it was impossible to go hide in a corner. In fact, mingling was almost fun. The fact that someone is “handling you” makes you important to everyone else in the room. “Oh! He has a handler. He must be somebody!” Damn! I should have had someone introducing me at parties years ago!

I spent part of the evening discussing sports with the late Ralph Wiley and chatting with the founder of Ms Magazine, Gloria Steinham. When the cocktail hour was over it was time for the VIPs to enter the main room, so that the event could begin. As the VIPs entered the room, our names would be announced, and the photographers would take a few photos. Gloria whispered into my ear that she was a bit uncomfortable with being announced into a room. I whispered back to her, “Aren’t you used to this? This is the first time I have ever done anything like this.”

Ralph was announced and a few bulbs went off. Gloria was announced and again a few polite flashes. Then my name was announced. Nothing. Not even a polite snap of the camera. The new season had not begun. I had shot an episode or two, but nothing had yet aired. Then Suzanne added, “The newest star of the Cosby Show.” I was blinded by a wall of light. It seemed as if every camera in the room went off and didn’t stop. Click click click on and on as I walked into the room. Being on the cover of Jet was great, but the response of those photographers at that small event hinted to me that I was truly on my way.

Next… Doing the Charity hustle.


About Author

Joseph C. Phillips

Joseph C. Phillips was born on January 17, 1962 in Denver, Colorado, USA as Joseph Connor Phillips. He is an actor, known for General Hospital (1994), The Cosby Show (1984) and Strictly Business (1991). He has been married to Nicole since 1994. They have three children.

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