When you think of Bill Cosby's television career, you can't help but think of his many successful series.
Cosby exploded on television as a comedian in the Sixties with guest shots on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, The Dean Martin Show and The Jack Paar Program. When he was cast as the co-star of I-Spy in 1965 he became the first African-American ever to star in a dramatic series.
Shot extensively on location around the U.S., in the Middle East, Asia, Mexico and elsewhere, Robert Culp (Kelly Robinson) and Bill Cosby (Alexander Scott) were complex, intelligent, funny, courageous, resourceful and tough. Topics like organized crime, totalitarian regimes, heroin addiction, right-wing vigilantes, friendship and courage were explored with depth and sincerity.
"I played a genius secret agent," Cosby responded to criticism that his character wasn't 'Black' enough. "A cat who spoke seven languages and knew how to make bombs. I wanted to be a human being. I wanted to get over all the tension that is supposed to exist and get on with the important things."
The show was a hit, despite some southern stations initially refusing to air it. Cosby won three consecutive best dramatic actor Emmy Awards for I-Spy (which was only the third show to prominently feature an African-American since Amos 'n' Andy was cancelled in 1952).
After I-Spy ended, Cosby signed an unprecedented two-year, $15,000,000 contract with NBC to star in a sitcom (with a virtually unheard of) guaranteed two season run) along with six prime time specials.
The Bill Cosby Show debuted in September of 1969, featuring Cosby as a gym teacher at a (fictional) Los Angeles area high school; it remains one of the most underrated series in television history. Cosby was executive producer of this, his first half-hour comedy and the concept was brilliant; it might be considered the first of the modern, more realistic style sitcom, wherein an average guy (Cosby) is surrounded by eccentrics.
"We've got to get away from the cute [ghetto] character we see too often on television, a medium which generally suffers from a lack of human beings," Cosby told TV Guide in 1969. "I'd like to call this series a study in human behavior. I'm trying to bring out the similarities in all of us. I want to show an individual with faults, not the perfect man but not the type why makes a fool out of himself like the leading characters in other situation comedies."
The regular cast consisted mostly of unknowns - naturally, since historically there were very few roles for blacks on TV until Cosby broke the barrier. Two familiar faces were the wonderful Lillian Randolph (Madame Queen on Amos 'n' Andy) as Chet's mother (Beah Richards replaced Randolph in season two) and Joyce Bulifant (Marie Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as a member of the faculty. Memorable guest stars included Cicely Tyson, Mantan Moreland, Moms Mabley, Wally Cox, Henry Fonda and Elsa Lanchester.
Overall the black characters were played straight while the white characters veered into caricature. "We've moved the stereotypes into the white area," Cosby said in 1969. "That's done on purpose."
Plotlines on The Bill Cosby Show varied from the TV formulaic (Chet is cast in a commercial and forced to eat bowl after bowl of a breakfast cereal), so-called 'relevant' issues (Chet becomes the go-to-guy for protesting students), to the semi-serious (a withdrawn youngster who refuses to talk follows Chet home from a settlement house).
"The most important thing for this new series," Cosby told Life magazine in 1969, "is that it should be believable and funny. I will not be striving to play the average black man. This is a school teacher who's not making enough bread so he has to moonlight."
On November 12, 1969 NBC presented Hey Hey, It's Fat Albert, a half-hour animated special based on Cosby's stand up routines spoofing his Philly boyhood adventures. The production, again helmed by Cosby, utilized real kids for the voices and proved a smash hit in the ratings.
Follow-up specials were more in the variety show vein, like The Third Bill Cosby Special in 1970 with the comic performing lengthy monologues on his childhood along with comedy sketches about prejudice and crime in addition to musical numbers by Roberta Flack; The Bill Cosby Special, or ? from 1971 featured guests Billy Eckstine, Herb Edelman, Dizzy Gillespie and Nancy Wilson.
With his million-selling comedy albums, variety show guest appearances, sold out Vegas shows and concerts around the country, Cosby was red hot in 1969. There was even talk of a nationwide chain of Fat Albert restaurants.
The Bill Cosby Show did extremely well in the ratings during the first year, ending the season at number 11. The program fell out of the top 30 during season two prompting NBC to cancel the series - that's when Bill Cosby's prime-time TV fortunes changed.
The Bill Cosby Show
The New Bill Cosby Show
Cast of The Bill Cosby Show / (1969 - 1971)
Bill Cosby - Chet Kincaid
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