Being on The Cosby Show made me a household name. Wherever I went people would say, “Hey, there’s, uhm, what’s-his-name from the Huxtables.” So, perhaps not a household name, but a recognizable face and certainly a recognizable voice. “I wasn’t sure it was you until I heard you talking.” Being on the program didn’t make me wealthy. I was, however, able to save enough money to buy a house and a new sports car. I met lots of beautiful women and received tons of special treatment. There were so many good things to come from my tenure on The Cosby Show–so many blessings–that it may seem odd that this role, arguably the most consequential of my career, is unquestionably my least favorite.
I’m certain that comes as a surprise to many. I am, after all, best known as Naval Lieutenant Martin Kendall. Even today–all these years later– people still stop me and say, “Hey. You’re uhm, what’s-his-name from the Huxtables.” It’s essential, however, to understand that the fun of a role is not determined by how famous the role makes you. There is no doubt that enjoyed the celebrity that the role gave me, but I had very little fun actually playing the role. I really didn’t get to do very much on The Cosby Show. I was little more than the straight man to Lisa’s wacky hippie. I had no real personality of my own apart from Lisa. Roles with no personality, which are seldom given anything to do, offer little challenge to an actor and are thus boring to play. It was a very weak hook on which hang my hopes and dreams of Hollywood stardom.
Martin is also on my list of least favorite roles because, as exciting as those times were, I was unhappy for a great deal of the time. Some of that unhappiness was due to my personal battle with depression, but I was also unhappy because at the studio, I was at the bottom of the totem pole and that meant that I got my feelings hurt – a lot. I wasn’t seasoned enough to have a tough skin, so the constant slights stung. One might sum up my time on the Cosby Show as a series of “nots.:” not much money, not much to do, and not much respect.
I never expected this job to make me rich, so my low salary didn’t bother me. Besides, even crumbs look like a feast to a starving man. Considering that I was broke when I got the job, I wasn’t complaining about the pay (and I’m not complaining now). Being on the number one show in the world would certainly open doors to other opportunities. The next job was the job that was going to send me on my way. At least that was the plan. What I didn’t anticipate was how utterly insignificant the show business world viewed my new gig.
I was fairly certain someone was sending me a message about my status when the NBC casting department refused to have a meeting with me. At the time, NBC was casting made-for-television movies, using in-house talent from NBC programs. Can you imagine? NBC was giving jobs to NBC talent! Hey, I was NBC talent. I wanted in! My agent placed a call to the casting department and requested a meeting. There were other Black actors on NBC shows with much bigger roles: Blair Underwood was on L.A. Law for instance and Jasmine Guy was very popular on A Different World, the show that was supposed to be a star vehicle for Lisa. It was all cool with me. I wasn’t asking to play the lead role; I just wanted to work. I could play the best friend, the husband, the detective, the schoolteacher, the second guy from the left, something! I wasn’t allowed to do very much on The Cosby Show, but I was NBC talent and I knew I was good. I just needed a chance. I knew that if they sat down with me, they would also see that I could do more than I was being allowed to do on Cosby. I would almost have done it for free. (Well, not for free. I may be crazy, but I ain’t no fool). I was already working cheap; it was worth it to me because jobs create more jobs. My big payday was going to come.
So, I pushed my agent to get me an appointment. NBC casting wasn’t interested. According to my agent, their response was: “They said that they don’t need to see you. They already know you and love you.”
I know what you are thinking; they said they love you. That sounds terrific! Yes. In normal English, this does sound terrific, but NBC wasn’t speaking normal English, they were speaking a hybrid known as Hollywood speak. Allow me to translate: “Joseph is not really in our current conversation. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” They loved me so much that they never called me, and never hired me.
I may have been given signals earlier, but the first time that being just a scrub began to sink into my skull, was in my first year during the taping of the Thanksgiving episode.
The costume designer had put me in a ridiculous costume. Yes, I was supposed to be a square, but she had me looking so lame Mr. Rogers looked hip in comparison. When I walked onto the set, dressed in that costume, Lisa burst out laughing. “What do you have on?” She was hysterical.
“I know,” I replied. “I asked about it. I don’t like it.”
“That’s terrible!” There was more laughter and teasing. When we began the rehearsal, she refused to stand next to me. “Eww.” she squealed and then flicked her hand. “Get away from me.” More laughter.
And Lisa wasn’t the only one. Malcolm looked at me sideways and began snickering. Tempestt looked at me as if I smelled bad. Keisha pointed and laughed!
When rehearsal ended, Lisa stopped laughing long enough to suggest that I have another talk with the costume designer.
I attempted to be diplomatic. “I really feel uncomfortable wearing this.”
She wasn’t having it. She snapped at me, “Look, I’ve already told you who your character is!”
I looked at her. In my head I was asking, “You told me who my character is?” I had never heard of a costume designer telling an actor who his character is. She would have never spoken to any of the other cast members like that. How do I know? Because Lisa, Bill, Phylicia, Sabrina, Vanessa, and Malcolm all told her what they liked and didn’t like and she adjusted her costume choices according to their tastes. I had been in the room as they tried clothes on and dismissed one piece of clothing in favor of another. As they told her who their characters were, she would just laugh and smile like it was the first Sunday of spring. At the time her response seemed odd. Later, as evidence of my low stature piled up, it would be clear that she only felt comfortable speaking to me in that manner because I didn’t matter. I was just a scrub.
Later in the day, she called me down to the costume room and presented me with a slightly reworked costume. I smiled and thanked her. She responded by telling me that I should read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Really? Why? Because I asked (nicely) for what I wanted? That was the first time.
Next…The ultimate humiliation