Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby

Date of birth: 12-07-1937
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Cosby, was a talented athlete in his youth, winning a track and field scholarship to Philadelphia's Temple University in 1961. But he left his studies to embark on a career in comedy, starting with local clubs before moving to New York in 1962.

His stand-up career, based on family-friendly recollections of his childhood, took off quickly, and he was soon working across America. His first appearance on The Tonight Show came in 1963 and he released his first album the following year, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow ... Right! 38 more would follow, mostly comedy but some featuring his singing. He won the Grammy award for Best Comedy Album six years in a row, 1965 to 1970

In 1965, he became the first black actor to have a major role in a TV series, co-starring with Robert Culp in the action series I Spy, a role which won him three Emmys.

In 1969, he landed his first sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, a modest success that ran for two seasons. In the Seventies, he starred in a number of hit movies including Uptown Saturday Night, Mother, Jugs & Speed and California Suite. His 1972 TV variety series, The New Bill Cosby Show, flopped, but his Saturday morning show, Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids proved a huge success, running from 1972 to 1984.

That led to the show that would lead him to TV comedy superstardom, The Cosby Show, which ran for eight years from 1984 and attracted huge audiences. This wholesome sitcom was based largely on his own life as a successful, college educated, family man.

After The Cosby Show finished, Cosby fronted a revival Groucho Marx game show You Bet Your Life and the clips show Kids Say the Darndest Things, appeared in the TV-movie turkeys I Spy Returns and The Cosby Mysteries, as well as the poorly-received films Ghost Dad, The Meteor Man and Jack

In 1996, he starred in a remake of One Foot In The Grave, called Cosby, which again failed to take off. But his $1million-an-episode salary cushioned the blow.

For much of his career, he has been criticised for not talking about his race – although he always argued that by not focussing on it, he was highlighting how black and white people are fundamentally the same. However, in later years he became a more outspoken critic of what he sees as corrosive elements in black culture.

Awards include many honorary degrees, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 and the 2003 Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. He has also written a number of bestselling books.

He and wife Camille O. Cosby had five children: Erika, Erinn, Ensa, Evin, and Ennis, who was murdered in 1997.

In 2014, Cosby's reputation took a battering when a series of historic sexual abuse claims surfaced. He was never charged with any offence, but did settle out-of-court with one accuser.

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Bill Cosby in Montreal 2009

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s early evening on a balmy summer’s day, somewhere in rural America, when you pop round to the large but understated home of that nice old couple you’ve seen around town, just to attend to some neighbourly business. The wife is away, so the man of the house, although shabbily dressed, invites you in, pours you a long drink ad suggests you take a seat on the porch, whereupon he starts regaling you with stories of his family with a warm wit and the wisdom of his years.

In such an amiable ambiance, he starts opening up, getting a few things off his chest about his long relationship with his wife – always with affection, but happy for an audience for these minor but longstanding irritants, for once away from his wife’s ever-present gaze. As the orange sun sets over the dusty horizon, you realise his convivial company and modest indiscretions have had you transfixed for too long. You should have been home hours ago.

And that is pretty much exactly what a Bill Cosby gig feels like. At 72, he talks slowly yet effortlessly for two-and-a-quarter hours without a break, and with almost exclusively different material from his last visit here, three years ago. He mesmerises every one of the 3,000 people in the audience into feeling as if he is talking intimately to them, and in keeping with the unshowy ambiance, he’s wearing a cheap sweatshirt, baggy trousers and comfortable house shoes. Again, not millionaire entertainer, but avuncular acquaintance.

He speaks of his age, of course, of the medical procedures he now undergoes with a resigned patience, of the weary acceptance that after 45 years of marriage he’s long accepted that his wife calls the shots, or of his grandchildren, whom he clearly holds in tender affection. Yet from such modest, homespun scenarios, Cosby creates such rich, warm comedy, giving a genuine flavour of the mundane realities of aging that will hit us all, that it’s hard to convey with justice in print.

The laughs come from the timing, the nuanced emphasis on crucial words, the mastery of silence and tension, the rolling of the eyes or the pitiful hangdog expression that decades of meek compliance have etched on to his face. Aptly enough, given his career, his stand-up resembles a sitcom in a very specific way: in that it’s all about the small victories.

He still relives one such incident, involving hotel room service, 38 years after the event; the memory of that one moment still bringing a satisfied smile to an old man’s face. He raises his fist in triumph at this, and other fleeting moments, where he manages to cling onto his pride and dignity. But mostly he’s the loser, as in the incident in which he was despatched to cut down a Christmas tree which he regales with perfect deadpan, scrambling to the floor to recreate the key moments of his utter humiliation. For the most part, though, he delivers his show from the comfort of his chair, leaning forward at key moments to share a confidence or occasionally taking a stroll for emphasis.

Now and again, material might seem familiar: women’s perfect recall for arguments or what to do in case of animal attack, for example, but he’s been telling such tales with perfect charm and wit since before most modern comic’s parents were even born. And yes, the show is too long, even though it doesn’t seem to concern him. Forty-five minutes after we file out, he starts it all again, before jetting back to his Pennsylvania home.

Seeing a comedy legend first-hand can be fraught with disappointment, an expectation that can only be heightened by the trail of less-than hilarious TV shows and films Cosby has behind him. But in the flesh, he proves the incomparable mettle that made him so famous in the first place: a master storyteller with understated but brilliant wit and irresistible stage presence. His advancing years add to the gravitas, like a village elder imparting his wisdom, but that combines with an exquisite delivery undimmed by age for an inspiring performance. What a star.

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Published: 27 Jul 2009

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