The only cast member I had friction with was Tempestt Bledsoe, (Vanessa).
The cast of the Cosby Show was a family knit as tightly as one of Cliff Huxtable’s famous sweaters. There was no way that I was just going to walk on the set and become one of that family. It was going to take time for people to get to know me. That point was made very clear to me during the taping of my first episode.
The first episode had my character, Martin, along with his baby daughter, Olivia meeting the Huxtable family for the first time. Towards the end of the episode, Claire and Cliff ask if they can give Olivia some ice cream. Martin replies, “Sure.” During the dress rehearsal (which we film before a live audience), Cliff and Claire asked if they can give Olivia some ice cream. Trying to be funny, I said, “Hell no! I don’t allow her to eat that stuff!” I then laughed and said, “I’m joking. Of course, she can have some ice cream.” The audience sat in complete–and I mean complete–silence.
Lisa never let me live that moment down. The rest of the year, whenever she wanted to have some fun with me, she would look at me with a completely straight face and say, “Cricket, cricket, cricket.”
After the taping, Bill consoled me. “The audience doesn’t know you, and they didn’t know how to respond.” Trust that during the second taping, I played it straight.
I had made up my mind that I was not going to let my shyness dictate my experience on the set. I was not going to be a wallflower. However, I didn’t want to make a similar mistake with the cast as I had made with the audience and come on too strong. So, I determined to take my time. I was going to smile and be friendly to everyone. Most of all, I was going to make certain that I was never standing around hoping someone would speak to me.
And the first person with whom I wanted to break the ice was Lisa. One day the two of us were talking and she mentioned something about the author Fran Leibowitz. I loved Fran Leibowitz, so we had something in common. I had two of Fran’s books in my library and loaned them to her. (As I think about it now, Lisa never did return those books.)
Similarly, One day, I was sitting around, talking with Tempestt about music. Tempestt had just discovered Aaron Neville. Somehow we got on the subject of Al Jarreau. Tempestt had never heard of Al Jarreau.
“Are you kidding me?” I exclaimed. “You have no idea what you’re missing!”
That night, I made her a cassette tape of Aaron Neville’s latest album. on the other side, I recorded some Al Jarreau.
These were the niceties that I engaged in early on during my first year and they were extended to everyone on the set. I was finding my new and more outgoing self very likable. I began to think that I might keep this guy around forever.
Following the Christmas break, I returned to work feeling more confident and more comfortable. After a Tuesday morning rehearsal, I returned to my dressing room and prepared to try on a piece of costume that had been left for me. There was a knock on my door; it was Tempestt. She said that she needed to speak to me.
“Sure. Come on in. What’s up?”
“Well,” she began tentatively, “I want to talk to you.”
I was suddenly curious. She seemed to be struggling. “Yes?”
“Well, I want to tell you that I am uncomfortable with all of the sex talk.”
It was like getting punched in the head by Mike Tyson. I sat for a moment unsure of where I was. I spoke carefully. “Tempestt,” I began. “I don’t know what you are talking about.” And I really didn’t.
“You know, all of the sexual innuendo.”
“Tempestt, you are 16 years old.” I was incredulous.
“I know,” she answered earnestly.
This chick was serious! I just looked at her. I couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t sound like, “You’re crazy!”
“Well, I just wanted you to know.”
She left. I shut the door.
What the hell just happened? She was 16, I was 28! Sure, in some places in the world, 28-year-old men dated–even married 16-year-old girls. There were also perverts running around getting with 16-year-old girls. I didn’t fit either of those descriptions. I sat down and began to think. What could she be talking about? In my mind, I went back over the year and a few encounters flashed rather brightly.
There was, of course, the cassette tape I made for her.
Then there was a conversation we had one afternoon while sitting in the stands during rehearsal. There was nothing unusual about that conversation. In the same way we had talked about music, we were talking about fashion. She teased me about the shoes I was wearing. I thought they were fashionable. She disagreed. At some point during the conversation the topic of relationships came up. Tempestt asked me, “Joseph, what is the youngest age girl you would date?” I was 27 at the time and because of the show, my dating calendar was full and the range of women I was dating was rather wide. I chuckled a bit as I thought about my answer. I replied, “Well, that depends. Do you mean date, or do you mean date?” I wiggled my eyebrows for emphasis. I then answered, ” I guess 23 or 24 for date – the redhead was 22 – and 19 for date. at the time, I wondered, could she have been hinting about me?
Then there was the Christmas party. I bumped into Tempestt walking down the steps. “Look at you!” I said. “Don’t you look nice!” And she did.
Oh my God! The evidence was adding up.
I then recalled the encounter the previous day. I had come off of the elevator, rounded the corner, and tripped over Tempestt, who had stopped in the middle of the entrance to the hallway to tie her shoe. As I recovered my balance I kind of tickled her on her sides.
“Whoops,” I laughed, and continued on to my dressing room. Oh Lord.
I hadn’t done anything except be friendly, but maybe a 16-year-old girl, who perhaps had a bit of a crush on me, would interpret my overtures as more than me being friendly. The idea that Tempestt had a bit of a crush on me was not my enormous ego operating in overdrive. During my first guest appearance three years previously, Tempestt had admitted as much and given me a kiss on the cheek as I sat in the make-up chair. I was also now positive that the reason Tempestt had asked about my cut-off age for dating was because she wanted to know if she had a chance.
Good Grief! What had I done? More importantly, what was I going to do now? My job, my career, and my good name passed before my eyes.
I called my girl friend, Susan, in the production office.
“Something just happened. You’ve got to come to my dressing room right away!” I often called Susan to come to my dressing room in an attempt to get a bit of hugging and kissing. She was terrified that we would be caught, so she was always hesitant. Today was no different.
“I’m, uh…kind of busy.”
“No. Seriously. Tempestt just accused me of having sex-talk with her.” Susan was knocking on my door before I’d hung up the phone.
I relayed the entire story to her; she laughed out loud and her laughter relaxed me enough to laugh with her. The entire thing seemed absurd. I hadn’t been into 16-year-old girls since I was 17 years old! More preposterous was the fact that, since becoming a member of the show, I had beautiful women coming out of my ears, one of which was now sitting in my dressing room. Why on Earth would I be interested in Tempestt?
We chuckled a bit more and then Susan shocked me with what she said. “I can see what she’s saying.”
“What?” I was horrified. “What are you talking about? You really think that I am trying to get with Tempestt?”
“No,” she responded. “You had better not be.” She winked at me. “I am just saying that I understand.”
“Well, I don’t understand.”
She looked at me and asked; “If you had come up on Phylicia in the doorway, would you have tickled her? Would you have tickled Lisa?”
“No,” I answered, but I also wouldn’t pick Phylicia up and toss her over my head like I do with Raven.”
“Raven is a little girl.”
And there it was. The light bulb went off. I had been treating Tempestt like a little girl instead of the young woman she was.
Okay, guilty as charged. But there was no sex talk! That just Did. Not. Happen! And nothing in anything I did implied any interest in a sexual relationship with her. NOTHING!
“I believe you,” Susan said. “Have you told Bill?” She asked.
“Do you think I should?”
She was right. I wasn’t about to lose my job over some high school bull shit. I needed to get to Bill before Tempestt. I ran downstairs to Bill’s dressing room and knocked on the door. Once inside, I didn’t waste any time.
“Tempestt just accused me of coming on to her.”
To my surprise, Bill chuckled a bit. He wasn’t angry and he didn’t seem particularly concerned. I had the sense that Bill was used to crazy behavior from Tempestt and this was just some more Tempestt drama. While we were talking, Bill took a call from Alvin Poussaint, the psychiatrist and Harvard professor who consulted on the show. Bill handed me the phone and left the room.
Doctor Poussaint listened to my story and then told me that, as I imagined, Tempestt had a crush on me and was fishing to see if I was interested in her. I assured him that I wasn’t. He advised me. “You need to talk to Tempestt and make it clear that you have no interest in her and that there is no chance for a relationship.”
I took a deep breath and headed back upstairs to talk to Tempestt.
If things weren’t already silly enough, they got completely stupid when I knocked on the door to Tempestt’s dressing room. “Can we talk for a minute?”
She stepped out of her room and said, “Let me see if I can find my mother.”
I rolled my eyes. This was going from ridiculous to absurd.
She didn’t look very hard for her mother before finally inviting me in. She then made a big show of making sure the door was open and would stay open.
“Good grief!” I said to myself. Now, I was getting angry. Lord help me, I wanted to say to her, “Little girl, I am not interested in your little, ashy behind!” I managed to exercise some restraint. “Tempestt,” I began. “I think you are a very nice girl, but you are only 16. I think that is a bit young for me.”
She just stared at me.
I filled the silence. “I just don’t have any interest in you, in that way. I hope we can still be friends.”
I don’t think I have ever had a more awkward experience. To be honest, I don’t remember what she said or how she said it. I got out of Dodge and crossed my fingers.
Just as I reached my dressing room, I was called to the set for rehearsal. As I walked across the stage, Bill approached me. He was wearing a very serious face.
“Joe, we have a problem.”
My stomach turned.
After a beat he said, “Raven says that you’ve been touching her.” He then broke out into a big laugh.
Yeah, real funny.
Tempestt never spoke to me again.
A couple months after this episode a bit of gossip trickled down to me that was very enlightening. It turns out that Tempestt didn’t have a crush on me after all. I still think she was a weird 16-year-old girl, but apparently she wasn’t interested in my ashy behind any more than I was interested in hers. The conversation about how young I would date was not an inquiry about me, but was meant to get a general sense of men’s attitudes about dating younger women, (or in her case, girls).
According to the gossip, the producers had cut off the phone service in Tempestt’s dressing room. My first response was, “The producers pay her phone bill?”
My source confided in me that her long distance bill had become outrageous–hundreds of dollars. Most of the calls were to a number in Los Angeles. The producers did a bit of digging and traced the number to Daryl Bell’s dressing room. Daryl Bell played Ron on the comedy series, A Different World. Tempestt had been asking me about my dating preferences because Daryl and I were the same age. Apparently, the guy with whom she had been having sex-talk was Daryl.
Tempestt and Daryl are still together all of these years later – and God bless them! And God bless me for getting in the middle of her budding romance with her future husband.
Next…Learning to keep my hands to myself