Wednesday, September 24, 2014

BILL COSBY: Mark Whitaker's Biography (Postscripts)

Mark Whitaker (L) and John Tepper
Marlin. Photo by Alice Tepper Marlin.
Sept. 24, 2014–Last night, at the North American office of Oxford University, Oxonian Mark Whitaker talked about Bill Cosby's achievements as a popular comedian and comic actor.

He also spoke about Cosby's private lobbying for African American causes. Cosby avoided talking about race in his comic routines, but had a definite point of view that put him in conflict with some other African Americans.

The Cosby Show, 30 Years Ago

Cosby's is best known for his contribution to the creation of Dr. Huxtable and his portrayal of the character in The Cosby Show. It was just over 30 years to the day since the debut of the first airing of this show.

The Show is credited with helping to make possible the election of President Barack Obama, because it showed a middle-class African American family, with the emphasis on the American rather than the African. The Cosby Show helped moderate the fears that middle-class white Americans showed in their abandonment of central cities for suburban areas.

Alice and I had some personal interest in following the show because she had grown up with co-producer Tom Werner on the Jersey Shore. Werner's wife Jill also worked at the organization Alice founded, the Council on Economic Priorities, before the Werners married.

Chapters 20 and 21 of Whitaker's book show the nervous runup to the creation of the show, as Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner staked a mortgage on their homes to bet on a family show starring Bill Cosby, who was then already known as the first black male star in a television drama, I Spy, which  ran from 1965 to 1968 and won Cosby three consecutive Emmys for Best Actor.

The road to the opening of the show was rocky. Cosby wanted the show to feature a limousine driver with a Latin American handy-woman wife. More than one writer was burned out in the script development, partly because Cosby himself liked to embellish on his lines. NBC executives tried to check on the rough cuts–they were told everyone was in a meeting, and then the tape would get lost...

Jay Sandrich was responsible for getting the final cut of the tapes for The Cosby Show. He had three  "rabbits' feet" on which he depended to get the tapes ready on schedule–
  • Two versions of the show were taped, in the afternoon and evening, so he could choose the best version of each scene.
  • Phylicia Ayers-Allen, playing Mrs. Huxtable the lawyer, could be relied upon to stay in character because of her ample live theater training, so even if neither of the versions was usable, she could often save the day by providing a usable reaction shot.
  • Cosby tended to leave after each shooting for some stand-up performance and therefore did not hover over the editing process. P.S. Cosby is is still, at 77 and despite his vision difficulties, performing live.
There was a lot of sandbagging before The Cosby Show's first episode, which was called "Pilot". Television commentators believed it would have trouble beating Magnum, P.I.  in their time slot, but they begged NBC not to "dump" the show if its ratings were weak.

But that week, 30 years ago, The Cosby Show beat not only everyone else in its time slot but every other show on television. It had 21.6 million viewers. When Carsey told Cosby the news, he was incredulous. 
"You mean we beat 60 Minutes?"
"Yes," she said.
"Call [my wife] Camille!" he said.
I remember watching the first episode myself, back then, and it was a revelation. The importance of the show was self-evident.

The Author, Mark Whitaker

Whitaker in his childhood identified greatly with Cosby for many reasons, mostly related to the fact that they both had fathers who left home. Whitaker's mixed-race parents divorced when he was six and his black father left home. They lived in Norton, Mass. (home of Wheaton College).

Unlike Cosby, Whitaker did well in school and went to Harvard and then won a Marshall Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. He worked for Newsweek as a reporter and then as editor and became the first African American to be editor-in-chief of a national newsweekly. He served as Washington bureau chief for NBC News and then managing editor of CNN.

His first book was a memoir, My Long Trip Home.

Cosby's Childhood

Bill Cosby is two years younger than Whitaker's father. He grew up in a housing project in North Philadelphia. After Pearl Harbor, his father Bill Sr. left his wife and two boys to join the Navy. He was home enough to add two more boys to the family, but for the next 15 years he served three tours of sea duty as a mess steward. His wife worked as a maid.

Young Cosby meanwhile did not do well at school, flunking 10th grade twice. He joined the Navy, like his father, and after four years' service he came out ready to go back to school. He had impressed a track coach from Temple University and was admitted to the University despite very low SAT scores.

At Temple Stadium, Cosby's coach had him run a 320-yard track, to try to increase the speed of a 440-yard runners and the endurance of a 220-yard runners. On his first run, Cosby had difficulty. The coach asked him what was the problem:
"Rigor mortis set in!" Cosby said. ... "Riggie... He's a little man who jumped out of the pit with a plastic hammer and hit me in the knee."
Riggie was a threat to Cosby all his life.

Cosby in Public and Private
Jonathan Winters, mentor.

In public, Cosby is transparent. He is seeking to get at truth. In private, he did not want at first to cooperate with the biography and when he did try to be helpful he tended just to tell stories.

On stage, Cosby avoids discussion of race. Off-stage, he takes on a variety of racial issues. He takes African American leaders to task for relying too much on trying to change the system and not enough on fixing problems by taking responsibility for them.

He gives great credit to white mentors that he has had during his life. He calls them "abolitionists", giving credit to the long history of conscience-stricken whites who have espoused abolition of slavery and enfranchisement of all citizens.

On stage, he is funny. Off-stage he can be funny but also deadly serious.

Bill Cosby and "Hello Friend" tee shirt in
honor of his son. 
Hollywood's comedians tend to know one another. He and the late Robin Williams were not especially close but they shared one idol - Jonathan Winters, who died in 2013.

Winters once warned Cosby that comedians tend to tire of their material sooner than their audiences do. That fact is one reason Cosby is constantly amending his scripts.

Cosby has two daughters. A tragedy of his life is that his son Ennis (1969-1997), who had been diagnosed as dyslexic but had overcome some of his disabilities, was killed while changing a tire on an access road in Los Angeles. Cosby does not talk about Ennis in public but in his performances he wears or has a tee shirt on display that has the message that Ennis used often - "Hello Friend". Whitaker does a good job of describing Cosby's deep feelings about his son.

Postscript (Sept. 24, 2014)

After I wrote the above, I read the review of Whitaker's book by Dwight Garner in the NY Times issue  of Sept. 23, 2014 (pp. C1 and C6).  Based on this review, I would add:
  1. The improvisational nature of Cosby's performances fits with his love of jazz, which Whitaker refers to when he describes Cosby's experience in the Navy.
  2. Garner lists specific ways in which Cosby helped fellow black actors and black students, such as the $20 million–widely noted at the time–that Cosby gave to Spelman College, a mostly black college.
  3. On the negative side, Garner notes allegations of Cosby's womanizing before he was 40, and accusations of sexual abuse. The book's greatest weakness, he says, is in Whitaker's not mentioning any of these claims.
Postscript 2 (Nov. 18, 2014)

Recent reports underscore Garner's point #3. More women are coming forward and they have little financial incentive to do so because with such a time lapse it would allegedly be hard to make a case, and the statute of limitations would have run out.

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