The contradiction between how I was treated behind the scenes on the Cosby Show and how I was treated away from the show was never more clear, or more true than during the Cosby Show finale. That Martin Kendall was not included in the final episode of that iconic series was a punch to my gut that sent me into the arms of the grey lady. The depression that swept over me that spring was tremendous and lasted well into the Summer. The Cosby Show had represented everything to me and perhaps the was the problem.
When I was hired on the show, I had worked as an actor for five years and I’d had some modicum of success. I had managed to support myself at any rate. The Cosby Show represented a doorway through which I might find a better life and a better career. Once through that doorway, I would be able to upgrade my career and my lifestyle. However, more than the feeding of my ego, the show also represented a kinship with greatness. The Cosby Show was a great show! It was historic! To be a part of that show – to be a Huxtable – meant that I would forever be part of classic television history. When I was left off the final episode, all the promises of the show rang cold and hollow.
In February of my second season, Things looked bright. I was on a great television series, I was standing by for Courtney Vance in the Broadway production of Six Degrees of Separation, and I was cast in a low-budget feature film called Go Natalie. The title would later change to Strictly Business. My excitement at being cast in my first feature film was tempered by the fact that I couldn’t do the film unless I had the show’s permission to take eight weeks off from work.
I met with Bill in his dressing room and explained that I had just received the lead role in a film. “I need eight weeks off.”
Bill was genuinely excited for me. “Go ahead. Go do your film. And I want you to know something…Lisa’s not coming back next season.” My mouth dropped.
I had known that something was in the wind, but this was unexpected. The last episode I shot before that meeting, Lisa was at the table reading, but was then mysteriously written out of the episode. I was stunned and didn’t say anything. All these years later, I don’t recall the exact reasons for her firing. Bill said something about being fed up with her attitude and there was something about the way she threw grapes at my mouth during a scene. I really liked Lisa and felt horrible, but honestly, as concerned as I was about Lisa’s plight, I was more interested in my own, so while Bill talked, I just heard, “blah blah blah,” until I heard something about ME.
“I like you,” Bill said. “So, you’ll be back next season.” Again, I zoned out of the conversation. I was busy thinking, “Why would Lisa being fired affect my job?” Clarity came a bit later: “Because, you big dummy! There was never a character named Martin Kendall, there was only a character named Denise’s husband/Olivia’s Daddy. And without Denise…” But at the time, I was still clueless. I was just thrilled to know that I had permission to shoot the film and that I had a job the next season.
The following season came and though I had a job, I didn’t have any work. Weeks passed and I was not in any of the scripts. Oddly enough, the only episode I shot that season was during the week of the Strictly Business premiere.
I didn’t hear from the show again until early February. At that time I received a phone call asking me to hold an upcoming week for the taping of the final episode of the series. Not too long afterwards, prior to the beginning of the week of taping, I received another call releasing me from my hold; I wouldn’t be needed. I put in a call to Bill that went unanswered. (After dumping me, Susan had begun an affair with Bill’s Assistant and he was blocking my calls to Bill.) At the beginning of the week of taping, I called the head writer. I was confused. How could every cast member–EVERY SINGLE CAST MEMBER–except me, be written into the episode? This was a tremendous slight.
She was very nice. “We couldn’t figure out a way to bring you in and explain why Lisa wasn’t with you,” she said. “At one point, we had Denise pregnant and unable to fly,” she continued. “We felt that turned a happy moment into something sad.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. She heard the hurt in my silence.
“But you are more than welcome to come to the taping. You are one of the family.”
Odd, I didn’t feel like one of the family. I stopped listening; all I heard was blather. The Cosby Show was celebrated as a program that championed family values and yet, in Martin Kendall, they had written a man who had essentially abandoned his daughter. I hung up the phone and felt a tightness in my throat.
The night the final episode aired, I was in Washington D.C. attending a memorial for Melvin Lindsey, the pioneering radio disc jockey who introduced the quiet storm format. Melvin had died of AIDS the year before. I didn’t know Melvin well, but what I did know, I liked. He had been a good man, and I was happy to be in the company of other people who loved him and were celebrating his life. All night I was being approached by people thanking me for The Cosby Show. I was a celebrity. Along with folks like Sugar Ray Leonard, Donnie Simpson and others, I was singled out to stand and be recognized. Pretty ladies batted their eyes at me and slipped me their phone numbers. Men smiled and wanted to shake my hand. I posed for photos. I smiled and tried to be charming. The entire evening, I was wondering if people could see behind the mask. Did they realize that I was a phony, that I was nothing but a scrub?
It had been a very brief three years – and it was now over. What had begun with such excitement, such joy, such promise, was now coming to an end with sadness and yes, bitterness.