Bill Cosby Huffs and Puffs on and Off His Hit Sitcom, but His TV Kids Say Father Knows Best
He’s the Pied Piper. The racially mixed audience filing into the NBC studios in Brooklyn for a taping of The Cosby Show smiles in anticipation. Bill Cosby, the star of the only smash hit of the new TV season, is not an untouchable of the tube. To these people, and the impressive one-third of the Nielsen nation who watch him every Thursday, the man is family. “He’s so great with kids,” says one woman to her friend as a group of teens lose their adolescent cool and begin asking, “Where’s Bill?” They can’t wait to see him in the flesh.
Cosby does not disappoint. The crowd applauds as an MC introduces each member of the cast, from Cosby’s TV wife, Phylicia Ayers-Allen, to four of his five TV kids, aged 5 to 16. But cheers and squeals are reserved for Cosby’s entrance. A mere salute of his beefy hand sets them off.
With The Cosby Show the star has created a sitcom that hits home—his and ours. That’s his own life—loving father raising five kids (four girls and one boy, same as on the show)—being played out in America’s living rooms. As Cosby and family take their places on the living-room set, the convivial, chatty crowd seems about ready to curl up on the sofa with them.
But the party-time mood is soon tested. What with technical foul-ups and cast bloopers, it often takes more than two hours to put a half-hour show in the can. And Cosby doesn’t like wasting time. Between scenes he occasionally banters with the audience, answering such questions as, “How old are you?” (47) and “Do you really eat Jell-O?” (Yes). But more frequently he huddles with cast and director, and his moods are quicksilver. A fan, noticing the paintings of Varnette Honeywood on the living-room walls, interrupts to ask whether the black artist is a personal favorite. Cosby responds in the affirmative but then coolly corrects her pronunciation of the artist’s name.
Offstage, Cosby can be arrogant. At a press conference last spring, he scolded TV critics: “I will be the judge of whether this show is good or not.” In interviews he steadfastly avoids personal questions. He’s simply reacting to poor reporting, he explains, adding that interviewers always ask him: “How long have you been black?”
Cosby’s creative demands for a series that does not depend on one-liners can be tough to meet. Three of the show’s four original writers left when their contracts expired after the first six episodes. (The six new staffers include the show’s first two black writers.) Earl Pomerantz, the original head writer, comments, “Most of us came from California, and I wanted to return to my wife and new baby. Bill challenges you to do your best, but I must say that I was awfully tired.”
Cosby’s perfectionism also applies to the kids on the cast. His behavior with these children is more complex than the big-kid image he projects in his popular TV commercials for Coca-Cola, Ford, Texas Instruments and Jell-0 Pudding. Onscreen and off, Cosby is an advocate of strong parental discipline mixed with TLC. His comments might seem harsh, but his approach seems to work.
During the long taping, he makes an effort to raise morale. When the youngest actor on the show, a 5-year-old heartbreaker named Keshia Knight Pulliam, becomes fidgety, Cosby distracts her with a game of horsey and a round of boogaloo dancing. His halfback’s body (he’s 6’1″ and weighs 180 lbs.) perfectly mimics her tiny movements, and his kidding is as funny as anything on the show. Later when Tempestt Bledsoe, 11, who plays the preteen preppy Vanessa, flubs her lines, Cosby is no more tolerant than he would be of an adult co-star. “Get it together,” he says sharply. But Cosby’s comments don’t rattle the youngster. “He has a secret theory about kids,” she says. “He can walk up to kids and start playing with them. And he can make kids behave without telling them to do so.”
Off-camera the TV kids are as rambunctious and unintimidated as they are on the show. “If you mess up he teases you,” says Malcolm-Jamal Warner, 14, who plays Theodore. “He’s letting you know that everybody makes mistakes.”
“He’s fantastic,” raves Lisa Bonet, 17, who is cast as Denise, the fashionably punk teen who gives her parents anxiety headaches. “Bill is real honest, and he goes out of his way to help us, critiquing and complimenting our work.”
The kids, mostly newcomers to show business, treat Cosby with respect. Tempestt calls him “Dad.” Keshia calls him “Mr. Cosby.” These manners reflect the way Cosby and his real wife, Camille, have reared their own children. Says Phylicia Ayers-Allen, 37ish, “The Cosby children address adults as Mr. and Mrs., and they show respect for each other. They’re very well-behaved, but it’s not artificial. It reminds me of Southern gentility.”
“With a famous father and all their financial advantages, they could be the worst kids ever,” says actor Al (One Life to Live) Freeman Jr., the godfather of the Cosbys’ youngest daughter, Evin, 8. “Instead, they’re terrific.”
That’s not to say they’re perfect. According to Freeman, the premiere episode of The Cosby Show was based on a talk Bill had with his son, Ennis, now 15. In the TV version, the boy says he doesn’t need to make good grades because he wants to be “a regular person,” not a success like his dad. “That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Bill responds.
The real-life Cosbys and their brood—Erika, 19, Erinn, 18, Ennis, 15, Ensa, 11, and Evin, 8—live in a 19th-century farmhouse near Amherst, Mass. (A teacher at heart, Cosby received his doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at age 39 in 1977.) The Cosby Show is produced in New York so that Bill can be near his family. He stays at his Manhattan brownstone during the week.
Four of the TV kids have met their real-life counterparts. (A fifth, Sabrina LeBeauf, playing the eldest daughter, Sondra, who is away at Princeton University, was just introduced to the public on the Thanksgiving show. Sabrina, 26, is a 1983 grad of the Yale Drama School.) Keshia met Evin this past summer. Bill sent his limo to take her and her parents from their home in New Jersey to visit the Cosbys in Massachusetts. “Evin is fun, and her house has three floors,” marvels Keshia. The 5’5½” Malcolm also met 6’4″ Ennis this summer. They played basketball on a court outside the NBC studio in Brooklyn. “He slaughtered me,” Malcolm reports, adding, “He’s a really nice guy, not a snob at all.” The two keep in touch. “We talk on the phone,” Malcolm reports, “mostly about girls.”
Camille Cosby attends the weekly tapings. During one recent show she sat in the front row, her lithe body wrapped in a purple angora dress, her silver earrings framing a stunning face. Between takes, Cosby came over to talk to her. Leaning over the railing, he whispered, “Do you love me?”
The Cosbys, who have been married for two decades, met on a blind date when Camille was a psychology major at the University of Maryland and Cosby was on a gig. Says one friend, “Camille doesn’t give a damn about that celebrity stuff. She would love Bill just as much if he were a teacher.”
Their friends see a lot of similarities between Camille and her TV counterpart. Says Sammy Davis Jr., a close pal and collaborator (Sammy and Cos on Broadway last season), “Bill has used a lot of ‘Camillisms’ in the show. The woman who plays the part is not a carbon copy—as no one could be—but in terms of dignity and beauty and love in the home, she’s like Camille.”
“When I met Camille I was really flattered to be chosen for the role,” says Ayers-Allen, who appeared on Broadway (The Wiz) and on a soap (One Life to Live) before joining The Cosby Show. Phylicia shares Camille’s apparent enjoyment of Cosby’s antics. “He’s the most intelligent silly person I’ve ever met,” Phylicia says, laughing. “He loves watching kids. That’s why this series works, because it’s based on human behavior, not one-liners.” A single parent, Ayers-Allen, who lives with her son, Billy, 11, in a New York suburb, says her experience as a mom helped prepare her for the role. “When I auditioned I was so glad for all those dishes I’ve washed.”
The kids relate just as easily to their roles. Tempestt, who moved from Chicago with her mother, lives upstairs from Keshia in the Pulliams’ two-family house. (The parents met during the filming of the Cosby pilot.) On weekends Tempestt and Keshia romp in a nearby park. “Bill’s always telling me to set a good example for Keshia,” Tempestt confides. The TV children go to school together. There is a tutor on the set and private classes are held at NBC in Manhattan. Malcolm and Lisa—who hail from Los Angeles—share an interest in music. “We’re hoping to go out dancing one night,” says Lisa.
Like several other parents, Keshia’s father, postal inspector James Pulliam, 27, frequently visits the set, a spacious rendering of a New York brownstone within a nondescript office building. “Keshia regards this as fun, and that’s the way it should be,” says Pulliam, who helps his daughter memorize her lines. “My wife and I have a new baby, and Keshia gets to be the baby here.” Keshia joins in mischievously, “This is just like my real family. My brother chases me and my sister hollers at me.”
For Cosby, a multimillionaire from his commercials, 20-odd comedy albums and scores of performances in Vegas, the television series is a cause. “I got tired of seeing TV shows that consist of a car crash, a gunman and a hooker talking to a black pimp,” he has said. “It was cheaper to do a series than to throw out my family’s six TV sets.” The star is involved in every aspect of the show’s production. He attends meetings with writers, frequently contributing ideas that become plots. He is co-producer of the series and even coauthor of its title song. Does Cosby have creative control? “Yes,” answers co-producer Tom Werner. “But it’s a pleasure to use his comic talents, and he is not unbending when an idea of his doesn’t work.”
Educators agree that black family life needed more credible exposure on the tube. “There are plenty of middle-class black families, but TV has given the impression that it’s not black if it’s not in the ghetto,” says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a black associate professor and psychiatrist at Harvard University who was recruited by Cosby to check scripts for psychological accuracy. “Blacks don’t talk in wisecracks, the way they’re often seen on TV. But black children have told me that their schoolmates expect them to make jokes like Webster.”
In an era of vigilante A-Teams and power-driven Dynasties, The Cosby Show, which can take a half hour to resolve the death of a pet goldfish, is revolutionary. Viewers are seeing a loving black family, not some cute black kid adopted by whites (Diff’rent Strokes, Webster) and not some obnoxious parody of white upward mobility (The Jeffersons). Here the question of race is—pointedly—beside the point. “All parents experience the same problems,” Cosby has said. “Does it mean only white people have a lock on living together in a home where the father is a doctor and the mother is a lawyer and the children are constantly being told to study by their parents?” To the few critics who maintain that the two-career Cosby couple is too “upscale” to be a realistic depiction of blacks in America, Cosby has a straightforward reply: “This is a black American family. If anybody has difficulty with that, it’s their problem, not ours.”