The very first thing Bill Cosby said on the phone was, "What school did you come out of?" Not, did you go to school, but where did you go to school.
As I fumbled to decide whether to call one of television's greatest legends Bill or Mr. Cosby, (I ended up doing both, back to back, an embarrassing amount of times) I blurted out: "the University of Central Florida."
It's clear from the get-go that education is important to Mr.Cosby, a.k.a. Bill. He is a man that knows what his purpose is and has very strong opinions. He corrected the way I asked questions and I didn't even care, because he's Bill Cosby. He could've told me my voice sounded like Fran Drescher's on a bad day, and asked if my questions were written by a three-year old, and it still would've been one of the biggest highlights of my journalistic career.
But he didn't say any of those things, that's just not his way. He's a very kind man and very clearly from a different generation. We discussed TV, racial boundaries, and of course, Jell-O.
New Times: You were the first African American to win an Emmy for your costarring role in I Spy, can you tell me about that?
Bill Cosby: Well, the answer is yes, but the question isn't right. What do you mean?
Can you explain the experience to me?
Good, you should put that in the question.
Well, it was after Sidney Poitier won his Oscar for Lilies of the Field. Winning at that time was unthought of for me at that age. At the time, there were three stations that wouldn't play us because of my race. So when the award was given to me, I didn't have time to think, but I know that the emotional rush was tantamount to everything I'd done in my life, and then it slowed down to my mother. It was very wonderfully emotional.
I did not think that this would end racial discrimination, nor do I think it proved that Hollywood would open its doors and everybody would be equal.
You've sang on a number of albums, especially in the '70s and even had a top 40 hit with "Little Old Man." Do you think you'll want to sing again?
A top what hit?
No, it was in the top five! It hit number four.
You have a doctorate in education that you got after you career had taken off. Why is education so important to you?
In managing my life, I really fouled up. But to be in charge of one's self, to be allowed to be in charge of one's self... When you look at my work or you hear me talking in books or on television, there's always a message to enforce the importance of education and the thoughts of what education will allow a person to do, regardless of where they are in their economic life.
To add to the list of things you seem to excel at, you're also a bestselling author. What books have you read in your life that have inspired you?
Quite a few, but I would like to send your readers to Wikipedia and look up Carl Sandburg. As you read about him, I would ask you to think as you go through his biography: Where do you get an idea that this man has studied writing? It's just not there. That's the amazing thing.
He never studied writing?
Well you have to look for it. Where do you see that this is what he wanted to be, that this is what he wanted to do? There's no hint at all that this man will one day become a Pulitzer Prize winner three times over.
You're known for your ability to be funny without resorting to profanity. Bob Newhart is like that, even Will Smith is known for that. It seems like today that profanity has become a means to humor, how do you feel about that?
Hey, if you can use it, go ahead. Knock yourself out. Patron beware, this is entertainment for a lot of people and a lot of them bring their children.
The Cosby Show discussed a lot of big issues while it was on the air, and the Huxtables always knew what to say to their kids. How do you feel parents today are dealing with issues like teenage sex or drug use?
I would like to address for the parents a need to be clearer with the males and the females pertaining to pregnancy. If you look at the definition of "parent," many people fall short. Whether you're 13 or 14 years old, you've got no job and no way to support yourself so you shouldn't risk bringing a human being into this world who's going to need monetary, mental, emotional, and parental support.
I think you addressed that really well during The Cosby Show years. Something I remember the most is the open dialogue the parents had with their kids on that show.
I see commercials where parents seem to be having a problem explaining sex. To me, it doesn't make any sense, because while the commercials are showing a parent sitting seriously with a child, the TV set does all it can to push it [sex] in the kids' faces. What is this stammering about? Why are parents standing in the shadows when TV and radio and newspapers and magazines are out there shoving it right at the kids?
I'd like to tell you a story my coworker told me. She is a huge Cosby Show fan, and when she was younger her parents tried everything to get her to stop sucking her thumb. Nothing worked until The Cosby Show went off the air. She was so distraught that she quit sucking her thumb in your honor. She held her thumb to the sky and said "This one's for you, Bill." Do you get a lot of stories like that? About how the Cosby show affected people growing up?
Yes. I get a lot of stories from people just walking, being somewhere. But it isn't just The Cosby Show. People will talk about I Spy, Picture Pages, they go to Fat Albert big time. Both male and female, they thank me very much.
That must mean a lot to you.
It does, because knowing how badly I managed my life, that's why I took my career in that direction.
Well from that poor management grew an incredible career with a lot of people that look up to you, so that's a good thing.
You're probably the most famous spokesperson for a dessert item ever. What drew you to Jell-O?
That's refreshingly honest.
Well, when I was a kid we ate it. It's a great dessert!
Do you watch comedians today? Do you have a favorite?
Well I don't like to mention them, but I do like Sinbad.
You've performed at the Hard Rock Live before, how do you like it?
The club itself, when you hear "Hard Rock" you think about young people, you think about rock, you think about partying, but I have had some great, great comedic performances there, and I look forward to none other than the same wonderful time I had before.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!