Bill Cosby is part of the pantheon of comedy geniuses that includes Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Jackie Gleason, says Tom Werner, co-producer with Marcy Carsey of the most successful comedy series of the 1980s, The Cosby Show.
"Bill's comedy has always been one of universality," Werner observes. "There is a sense in his comedy of, 'We're all in this together.'"
Inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1992, Cosby has continued to garner accolades not just for his comedy, but also for his contributions to society. In 2002 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1998 was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.
Born in 1937 in Philadelphia, Cosby attended Temple University on an athletic scholarship while moonlighting as a comic in local nightclubs. In 1962, he appeared at Greenwich Village's Gaslight Café. A favorable review in the New York Times brought him to the attention of Allan Sherman, a frequent guest host of the Tonight Show, who introduced Cosby in his television debut in 1963.
Cosby signed with powerhouse agent Norman Brokaw, who has represented him ever since. "My first impression of him was that he was very special," Brokaw remembered. "I loved his style of comedy. I saw the same qualities that Bill has today. He is an incredibly bright, creative, decent, loyal human being who cares about people no matter where he goes."
In 1965, the comedian broke new ground on television when Sheldon Leonard cast him as Robert Culp's sidekick in the action-adventure series, I Spy, becoming the first African-American actor to star in a leading role on a dramatic series. He won three Primetime Emmy Awards for the role of Alexander Scott.
Cosby continued to add to his television resume while building stand-up and recording careers: his comedy albums featuring anecdotes of childhood pals Fat Albert, Old Weird Harold and Dumb Donald broke sales records. The Bill Cosby Show, featuring Cosby as a high-school basketball coach, ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971.
In the early 1970s, CBS developed Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, an animated program that was executive- produced by Cosby. Further reflecting Cosby's concern for children were his appearances on The Electric Company on PBS and Cos, a 1976 ABC children's variety series. He earned a doctorate in education in 1976.
In 1984, Werner and Carsey contacted Brokaw about the possibility of Cosby's appearing in another comedy series. The Cosby Show, which depicted an affluent African-American family — Dr. Cliff Huxtable was an obstetrician, wife Clair an attorney — with five children at once became the top-rated series and helped make NBC the most watched network. Airing for eight seasons, it also revived the situation comedy, which had been declared dead.
"The Huxtables," Brokaw said, "showed how all families are alike. We all get up in the morning and do the same things. We all have the same problems. It presented situations that all families get involved in."
Werner said that Cosby was responsible for the show's content and style. "We really were in service to Bill and his philosophy. He was always the guiding genius. Bill has always said the reason for the show's success was that people saw their own experiences. People always said, 'How did they get into our house?'"
Cosby also executive-produced the spin-off series A Different World. In 1996 he launched the series Cosby, about a newly retired man and his wife, which ran four seasons. He's also produced the animated series Fatherhood and Little Bill, and the web series OBKB.
In 1997, Cosby's only son, Ennis, was murdered in Los Angeles during a mugging. He and wife Camille established the Hello Friend - Ennis William Cosby Foundation, one of the couple's numerous efforts to help young people attain educations.
It is his comedic legacy that will most endure. Said Phylicia Rashad, who played his wife on The Cosby Show and Cosby, "Mr. Cosby is with the real world, and people embrace him because they feel as if they are embracing the best of their own selves. And they can laugh at what they see, and it makes them feel good inside. That is very, very rare."
— Tom Link