When I worked on The Cosby Show, I wasn’t politically active. However, I was opinionated and then as now, I had a very big mouth. Somehow, I avoided politics on the set…almost.
One of the fun things about working on the Cosby how was meeting the famous people who were guest stars, or stopped by the set to visit. Bill knows everyone and his friends were always stopping by. There was, of course, Muhammad Ali. The great soprano Jessye Norman came to a taping one night. Miss Norman is almost as tall as I am. I said something charming and witty and she opened her mouth to laugh and I swear I saw all the way to her lungs. B.B. King sang happy birthday to me in front of the audience, which was a real treat. How great was it that Moses Gun played my father, or that the lovely Nancy Wilson played my mother. Nancy Wilson is the definition of class. I enjoyed sitting on the set with her as she told me stories about growing up shooting guns and dating some of the icons of American Cinema. (I’ll never tell.)
While on vacation in Cancun, I passed Nancy in a mall. (Don’t ask why I was in a mall in Cancun.)
“Hey, Mom,” I joked.
Nancy turned around to see who in the world…Her face lit up and she gave me a big hug. Nancy introduced me to her husband and then invited me up to her hotel room to play some Bid Wist. Some may not appreciate the significance of this invitation, but Black readers will know that you don’t just invite any ole body to play Bid Wist! I wanted so badly to accept, but I had to decline as I was on a blind date at the time.
I didn’t meet Miles Davis on the set, but being on the show enabled me to see him in concert a couple of times. The first time was in December of my first year on the show. As a Christmas present, the red head took me to see him at the Beacon theater. A few months later, I saw him perform in Los Angeles and ended up hanging around the back stage area with some music executives. As he headed backstage the great musician said, “Hello, Joe.” That was one of those moments I will never forget.
Perhaps the most exciting of all was meeting the reverend Jesse Jackson. Five years before my starting on the show, you would have found me at a Jesse Jackson Rally chanting, “Run, Jesse, run!” I had grown up reading about Jesse Jackson. He was/is an icon of he civil rights movement, so I was excited to meet the reverend. After meeting Reverend Jackson the first time, there was a long stretch where I seemed to run into him all the time. I would see him at every event I attended, and he was hanging around the set a lot.
I was impressed that, after meeting me once, he remembered my name the second time, and always said hello when we saw each other.
When I met Reverend Jackson, he and some other prominent black folk were making the case that Black kids were spending millions of dollars on sneakers from Nike and Reebok and yet there were no Blacks on the board of directors. Jackson was leading a boycott of the sneaker companies in order to force them to put someone Black on the board of directors. What remained unclear was how one of Jackson’s cronies getting wealthier by being on the Nike board of directors was going to enrich the lives of a poor Black child.
Both Nike and Reebok provided shoes for the show. It was Malcolm who one day asked me why I was spending money to buy sneakers when all I had to do was ask the costume department to order me a few pair from one of the sponsors. Unfortunately for me, word didn’t trickle down to me until my second season and by then it was almost too late. I was only able to snag one pair before Bill cut ties with both companies as part of the boycott. Selfishly, I was a bit perturbed because, well, I like getting free stuff and back then I really could have used a new pair of Jordans.
(I have to say, I was horribly unsophisticated in the art of acquiring swag. When I began dating Lee, she hipped me to how easy it could be. with her, I began attending pro/celebrity tennis tournaments. She had me call up Nike, tell them who I was and just ask for some gear. A few weeks later, two pair of tennis shoes, two pair of Andre Agassi shorts, and a few shirts arrived in the mail. But I digress.)
When I found out about the boycott, I was actually asking for free shoes. Bill was standing nearby when the costume designer was giving me the bad news. I recall mumbling something along the lines of, “Rather than boycott, why don’t we buy stock in the company [and show up at the stock holders meeting…]” I didn’t think it was smart to contradict the boss and truthfully, I don’t think I really had the courage to offer much in the way of an opinion on the matter– not to Bill anyway. I had a bit more courage when it came to the Tawana Brawley hoax.
In 1987, there appeared in the newspapers a small item about a young teenage girl, who had been kidnapped, assaulted, rubbed with dog feces, had racist words written on her body, and left out in the cold to die. The girl’s name was Tawana Brawley. The story quickly became front page news and all of New York was outraged, sympathetic, and eager to see the perpetrators caught and punished. Then three clowns entered the story and turned the case into a three ring circus. Tawana hired or was consulting with two attorneys – Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason – and an overweight reverend with relaxed hair named Al Sharpton. The three of them turned New York City upside down. They made outrageous accusations, one more ridiculous than the next. They claimed they had proof of a conspiracy that went all the way to the governor’s mansion and beyond; it was international in scope. They managed to ruin the careers of several men. And they knew all along that Brawley was lying. When the story began to fall apart, the three of them began to play the race card, dividing the city along racial lines. Many Blacks seemed willing to give Brawley the benefit of the doubt, while whites felt that their trust had been abused. Anyone who lived in New York City during this time can testify to the awful mood of the city.
The sympathy and money that poured into the Brawley camp was tremendous, especially from Black celebrities. Bill was one of the celebrities who publicly supported Brawley. At one point Bill met with her and as story has it, he made a gift to her of his gold Rolex watch.
I had no interest in rocking the boat at the studio. All I wanted (besides free stuff) was to get along, so that I could continue to go along. Alas, I have a huge mouth and sometimes don’t know when to shut up. One afternoon, I was standing in the costume room and for a reason that escapes me now, I was discussing the Brawley case with Bill. It may have been that there was a recent news story. Whatever the reason, the two of us stood there discussing this case that had ripped New York City in two. The discussion wasn’t very long. We both outlined our positions, mine, of course being that she was lying and that I resented the three clowns Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason and their baseless charges of racism. Bill felt that something happened. He couldn’t say what, but he was sure that something had gone down.
“Joe, don’t you think something happened?”
“Well, not really. No.”
I looked over to see the costume designer looking at me sideways. She was giving me a look that said, “Stop talking.” Suddenly, I had flashbacks to Corey jumping up and down in our living room, trying to stop me from talking to the Star Magazine. I began to sweat and so I mumbled something more and found a reason to excuse myself. To this day, I wish I had finished that conversation with Bill. I wish I had continued talking and that the conversation had progressed on to other topics. I wish that Bill would have found discussion with me interesting enough to extend an invitation to dinner.
NEXT…The last conversation with Bill