I never called Bill “Cos”; no one did. Some on the set called him Mr. C, some Mr. Cosby, and others, just Bill. I was never sure what to call him. I have always been uncomfortable calling my elders by their first names, but “Mr. Cosby” sounded so stiff. I knew a Bill Cosby. I didn’t know anyone named Mr. Cosby. I decided to call him Bill. In truth, what I mostly did was just begin a conversation with him, avoiding having to call him anything. Problem solved.
I loved Bill Cosby and I still do. I genuinely love the man. He was my boyhood idol. While growing up, I watched every television program and special, every film, and listened to every comedy album. He was one of two comics that I imitated and memorized. Richard Pryor was the other. Few get an opportunity to meet their idol, much less work with them. I was blessed in that regard, and even more blessed that I found my idol as clever, kind, and brilliant as I had imagined.
My first day at work, I was understandably nervous. I arrived at the studio, was given a brief tour, and then taken onto the sound-stage and directed to take one of the many seats that surrounded a group of tables. The director, writers, and cast sat around the tables during the reading of the script. Behind the tables were several other chairs in which sat the crew and other department heads. As I made my way to my seat, Bill passed me and whispered, “Bad penny. Bad penny.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I wondered. “A bad penny always turns up. Was I something bad? Was I something that one wouldn’t want to see again? That’s the first and only thing you can say to a new cast member?” Of course it didn’t mean anything bad. The only way I was any where near that set was because Bill had chosen me.
Bill was making a joke about me having been on the show before as a date for Sondra. He was also referring to a conversation we’d had about two years before:
The year following my first appearance on the show, I was cast in a new series called, The Clinic (Hothouse). You’ll have to look hard at the history books for this show. We only ran for six episodes. The Clinic was created and produced by the remarkable Jay Presson-Allen (I have been extremely fortunate in some of the people I have been able to work with. Among other works, Allen is the writer of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) The Clinic was shot at Astoria Studios in the sound stage neighboring The Cosby Show sound stage. We shared dressing room space with The Cosby Show. One day, while strolling the halls, I bumped into Bill. I was impressed that he remembered me from the week I had worked on the show. He asked me what I was up to and joked about his collecting 10% for me being on a new series. During our chat, a conversation he had with my father came up.
A few months previous, Bill had been performing in Denver. My father was a huge Bill Cosby fan and bought tickets to the show. After the show, my father somehow got backstage, introduced himself as my father, and chatted with Bill. Why do parents insist on embarrassing their children? I was a grown man and my father’s story had me dying of embarrassment. I was both embarrassed and horrified! I was both embarrassed, horrified, and aghast! I was both embarrassed, horrified, aghast and incredulous. I was…well, you get the picture. You see, once my father got going, he would talk your ear off. The image of my father droning on and on to a perplexed Bill Cosby had flashed through my mind. Happily, my father told me that Bill was very gracious and said very nice things about me. So, when I bumped into Bill in the hallway that afternoon, I laughed and expressed my appreciation for his kindness. “Thank you for being nice to my father.”
Bill laughed and responded, “Well, you know. I just had to go with it.”
Moments like that made Bill all the grander in my eyes. Bill was just a really cool guy! He was a huge star, but he was humble enough, unpretentious enough, and kind enough to recognize a man (my father) who was unsophisticated in the Hollywood protocol, but was bursting with pride in his son. I will always remember Bill for that lesson in graciousness.
Bill was/is a great teacher and that is another reason I’ll always love him. One week, we were shooting an episode where Rudy, the youngest Huxtable daughter, was learning to tap dance. Her dance teacher was played by Sandman Sims. In the episode, Bill and Sandman faced off in a tap dance challenge that was hysterical. During the taping, the audience was laughing so hard that they were literally gasping for air. During the week, while we were preparing for the dress rehearsal, a young boy of 10 or 11 found his way backstage and into the make-up room. He walked right up to Bill Cosby with the boldness that is only present in youth, and demanded, “Put me in your show. I can tap dance!” Bill didn’t miss a beat. He asked the choreographer to come into the room, cleared some space and gave him the floor. “Show me what you got,” Bill said.
The boy danced a few simple steps. Bill asked if he could do any tricks. “Sure, I can do tricks,” the boy responded. Again, Bill stepped back giving him the floor. The boy stared up at Bill with wide, innocent eyes. “I can’t do them now. I have to go home and practice.” My heart sank. He had come so close, but he was not going to be on television that week. I am not sure if the boy learned a lesson that day, but I did. That boy had a ton of courage. He sought out an opportunity in a way few folks are capable of. He was bold enough to find his way backstage, walk up to the biggest star on television and ask to be written into the show. Bill gave him a chance, but he wasn’t fully prepared. The boy’s disappointment was not due to any lack of talent, or lack of connections – it was due to lack of preparation. If he had just done something, anything, Bill probably would have written him into the show simply because he had shown courage and spunk. Anyone who has spent any time in Hollywood knows that success is not always a matter of raw talent. Some may argue that it is rarely due to talent. Success is often the result of having the courage to seek opportunity and the preparation to take advantage of it when it peeks around the corner.
Next…Working with a genius