Being on the set with Bill was always an adventure.
Bill’s genius as an actor and a comedian was why I was so very nervous, when in December of my first season, the writers had Martin spending the entire day with Cliff. The episode meant I would have several scenes alone with Bill. I was a bundle of nerves.
Bill was notorious for going off script, meaning that during the scene, he would say lines that were not written. I often thought it was because he hadn’t memorized his lines and so just threw some stuff out, but more often than not, he was in the moment and improvising. Bill’s acting style (at least on the show) was akin to jazz music. Bill would play the music as written, and every now and then improvise within the chord structure the writers had provided. Bill was a master at jazz acting. On the surface it seems that such a technique is the refuge of the lazy actor. On the contrary. The improvisation must make logical sense in the scene. If an actor is to engage in logical behavior and still drive the scene, he must be completely in the moment. Acting with someone who is improvising also requires that you be in the moment, lest you become an observer of the scene as opposed to a participant in the scene. The last thing I wanted was to stand around and have Bill run all over me during our scenes. A large part of the show was just Martin and Cliff – Bill and I – sitting around talking. When the time came for us to act, I was ready. When he began to go off script, I wasn’t flustered. Shooting that episode was one of my favorite weeks working on the show.
I took my cue on how to work with Bill from another genius, Phylicia Rashad. Each week Phylicia taught a master class in listening and staying present. Bill would begin to improvise and Phylicia would let him go just far enough, without getting too far afield, before coming in with her scripted line. Her timing was impeccable because she listened so well; she was in the moment.
Watching the relationship between Bill and Phylicia was also a real treat. America loved Cliff and Claire. The on-screen couple seemed to be two people who were not only truly devoted to one another, but who genuinely liked each other. The characters of Cliff and Claire had been life-long friends and it showed in how they related to one another. The on screen relationship between Cliff and Claire was so special because the off-screen relationship between Bill and Phylicia was a genuine friendship. Of course, I don’t know any intimate details. I suppose it may have been possible that the two of them were ambivalent towards each other. However, if that were true, it only means they were even better actors. I just don’t think people can fake the kind of genuine love Phylicia and Bill had off screen. Actors, no matter how good, can’t fabricate the laughter the two of them engaged in off screen. I often heard Phylicia filling Bill in on some bit of news from her life. Anyone married for any length of time knows the fake listening pose, the nodding of the head and gentle, “uh huh,” while the mind is miles away. I never once had the impression that Bill wasn’t listening. In fact, more often than not, the two of them huddled together in conversation and laughter. It was a genuine friendship. And like friends, they played pranks on one another.
When I appeared as Daryl during the second season of the show, Bill handed me a cake box filled with a cake from some fancy bakery and innocently asked if I wouldn’t deliver it to Phylicia’s dressing room. After all, I was going in that direction. Phylicia opened the door and I handed her the box. Phylicia screamed and then spotted Bill peeking around the corner. Laughing, she chased Bill a bit down the hallway before returning. She saw the stunned and frightened look on my face and calmed me down. Still laughing she said, “I just started a new diet and he knew this is my favorite cake.” A genuine friendship.
Bill’s pranks didn’t stop with Phylicia. I am often asked, “What is the funniest thing that happened on the set?” The answer is simple.
I never laughed as hard on a set as I did during the Wednesday dress rehearsal for the episode in which the Huxtable men get pregnant. Cliff has a nightmare where all of the men in the family, including Theo, end up pregnant. The guest star that week was the comedienne Elaine Boozler, who played the frantic obstetrician responsible for delivering four babies at once. At the end of the episode, all of the men are in maternity beds with their feet in stirrups. Boozler sits on a stool and rolls from one man to the next delivering babies, which are not really babies, but things that have something to do with the character. For instance, Martin, who is a naval officer, delivers a navy schooner, Elvin delivers a medical school diploma, and Cliff gave birth to a long submarine sandwich. During rehearsal, the scene was going along, Elaine was acting, wheeling from one Huxtable man to the next, delivering props. When she got to Bill, she tucked her head under the sheet and then let out a huge scream and pushed herself back from Bills bed. Bill whipped off his sheet to reveal the biggest, blackest dildo you have ever seen (think donkey size). Bill had it strapped on outside of his pants and chased Elaine around the set as she screamed, “No! No!” The sight of her wheeling herself around the set to get away from Bill and him jogging after her with that big donkey schlong was the absolute funniest thing I had ever seen. Everyone on the set–especially Elaine Boozler was in hysterics!
Next…politics on the set