There were a few major slights, but mostly it was a parade of little things that confirmed my scrub status. For instance, there was the day one of the guys on the set refused to get me water. I know how that sounds. “Joseph, why don’t you get your own damn water?” Well, I usually did and would have that day except that we were in the middle of rehearsal. Look, if I am taking the subway to the Earth Day rally, I’m certainly not standing around the set all day ordering people to get me water. I don’t really know what the guy-in-question’s job was. Perhaps, he was in the props department. All I know was that he was quick with a “Mr. Cosby” this and “Mr. Cosby” that, all day long, (as well he should have been). He was also smiling all over Malcolm, and whenever Malcolm wanted water, he would run and fetch a bottle. This particular afternoon, as we were in rehearsal and he was grabbing water for Malcolm, I asked if he might grab me one too. He just looked at me like I was, well, a scrub and said simply, “No.”
Without a doubt the worst indignity I suffered was the producer’s refusal to provide me with a dressing room. The producers provided me with a room in which to dress, but that is not the same as a dressing room. Geoffrey Owens (Elvin) also didn’t have a dressing room, but the core family all had permanent dressing rooms, with phones, couches on which to lay down and relax during the down time, and bathrooms. They could personalize their rooms and make them their own. I would have loved a room like that! (A few years later, I would have a dressing room like that while playing Justus Ward on General Hospital. It was just as wonderful as I imagined.) However, I understood that I was a son-in-law, not a son. I was not a core member of the family, nor did I work every week. So, I didn’t need a dressing room like that and never requested one; all I wanted–all I asked for–was something respectable when I was at the studio.
Early on in my first year, there was a dressing room to which I was usually assigned. When Geoff and I were both on the show, we shared the room. I had no issue with that. What bothered me was that when there was a guest, I was treated as a poor step-child and tucked away in a furnace room someplace. I asked my agents to inquire with the producers about finding me a regular room. They were told that there weren’t any extra dressing rooms. Odd, because at the start of my second season (Season 7), Erika Alexander (Cousin Pam) showed up and miraculously there appeared dressing room space. No more dressing rooms? I guess what they really meant was that there was no dressing room space for me.
Okay. No problem. I asked and was told no. I was a team player, so I shrugged my shoulders and just tried to focus on the wonderful things that were happening in my life, and as I have shared, there was plenty to focus on.
Then one week they put me and Geoff in a storage closet. I don’t mean a small room. I mean a literal closet in which random stuff was being stored. I felt that was the final indignity. The room was stacked with stuff – tables, chairs, boxes of files, dust all over the place – a mess. Geoff and I moved some boxes around and had just enough room to sit down on the two metal assembly chairs that had been provided and to change clothes. That was it.
This was simply wrong. Prior to this moment, I had actually considered that I was allowing my ego to run away from me. That day, I knew that it was not my ego, it was a matter of being treated with a bit of dignity. This was the number one television program in the world! (Years later, I met people from the former Soviet-Block who knew me from The Cosby Show.) The Nielson numbers the show used to hit are unheard of today. The Cosby Show is one of only three television programs in history that were rated number one for five straight seasons. The show was routinely hitting a 30 share of the market and there were episodes that reached a 50 share. A share reflects the number of televisions tuned to a particular program at that given hour. Imagine, there were nights when of all the televisions turned on in America, half of them were watching the Cosby Show. And two of the shows actors were sitting in a storage closet. It was insulting, and I didn’t think we should have to take it.
Geoff didn’t seem to mind, or maybe he had simply resigned himself to the way things were. And honestly, there wasn’t much more I could do: I had asked twice and they said no. I wasn’t going to quit my job. Sure, I was depressed, but I wasn’t crazy. Instead, I went into quiet protest. Rather than sit in the closet, I parked my butt in the lobby.
The Cosby Show set occupied the stage on the first floor of a building at Astoria Studios in Astoria Queens, N.Y. The front doors opened into a lobby, with a small bank of elevators straight ahead. The elevators went to the second floor, which housed dressing rooms and production offices. To the left were a short flight of steps that went up a half a flight and led to another wing of the building –I never had cause to go over there.
To the right of the elevators was a hallway off of which was the transportation office and bathrooms. Beyond that, a right turn led to the control room and the sound stage. Continuing straight would take you through a doorway and back to Bill’s dressing room and office, and the hair/make-up and costume departments.
Had you stopped by the studio to visit, you would have walked through the doors, glanced to your right and seen me perched on one of the sofas.
On taping days, I would change my clothes in whatever broom closet I had been assigned. However, during the rest of the week, I stayed in the lobby. Did anyone notice? I don’t think so. Least ways no one ever said anything. I have a sneaking suspicion that even if they did notice, the producers didn’t much care. Storage closet? Lobby? What’s the diff?