Comedian, author, pitchman, producer and — above all — TV star, Bill Cosby over a nearly 60-year stretch had an impact on American culture both deep and wide.
He began a standup career at New York’s Gaslight Cafe in 1961, then became a national comic phenomenon after just one appearance on “The Tonight Show” two years later. Best-selling concert albums followed, and then a hit TV series — 1965’s “I Spy,” which made TV history by casting prime time’s first African-American in a lead role.
During the ’70s, he became a children’s TV icon, with his animated Saturday morning hit, “Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids,” based on his boyhood friends in Philadelphia. His Jell-O commercials, which aired for decades, became mini hits in their own right. In the meantime, he had launched a successful movie career (“Uptown Saturday Night,” “Hickey & Boggs”), while expanding his prime-time portfolio with sitcoms and variety series.
By the beginning of the 1980s, he had become one of the most famous entertainers in the world. Then in September 1984, he changed cultural history by revolutionizing the age-old sitcom and restoring NBC to prime-time prominence. “The Cosby Show” also conferred on him vast wealth, power and influence.
“Cosby” arrived at NBC while it was still struggling to emerge from a protracted prime-time slump. The sitcom — as a prime-time staple — was essentially considered dead, which tempered hopes for this newcomer, even with the Cosby name attached.
“The network seemed to be really, truly dead,” said Tom Wolzien, a former NBC executive and financial analyst. “I was at the affiliate meeting at the Century Plaza in Los Angeles when they ran the entire pilot — and you’ve got to remember this was the first black-orieinted universal family comedy on television ever and it had already been rejected by ABC — and I remember that the entire room stood up and cheered. It was the first good thing they’d seen.”
He added, “It was spectacularly important for the rebirth of NBC and must-see TV.”
Earl Pomerantz, the founding executive producer of “Cosby,” said Wednesday, “The whole genre was starting to feel stale and predictable [but] I knew it was special when I saw the 14-minute presentation sitting in my kitchen. I got very excited by the freshness of the comedy and observational style.”
By his own estimation, “Cosby” was supposed to be — and often was — an ideal reflection of any family, black or white, with standard generational conflicts and feel-good resolutions. The necessity of education was the common thread through almost every episode, from the first to the last on April 30, 1992, when the Huxtables’ son, Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), graduated from college.
After the show wrapped, Cosby never came close to recapturing the power and influence of the “Cosby” years — a short-lived CBS sitcom reuniting him with Phylicia Rashad was a wan reminder of the glory years. NBC explored the possibility of a “Cosby Show” reboot in 2013. A pilot was ordered, but the proposed show was scuttled following sexual assault allegations against Cosby. NBC then severed its ties with him, while reruns of “The Cosby Show” were pulled by TV Land.
“For me, working with him was like sitting in on the greatest jazz band of all time,” Pomerantz said. “To me, this is heartbreaking. That might make me sound cold-hearted toward the victims but that’s not what I’m trying to say. It’s heartbreaking to see someone who was so high fall so low, and at the end of his life.”