The Man Who Would be King?
BILL COSBY discusses his failed bid to buy NBC, his new series, and the plot to censor good TV
By Lisa Bernhard
It's always been tough to figure out who the real Bill Cosby is. American first knew him as a stand-up comedian from Philly, a guy who crossed generational and racial lines by exploring the common struggles and ironies of human relationships. Since then he has donned a closet-full of hats, including part-time Tonight Show host, movie actor, product pitchman, academic (he earned his doctorate with a thesis based on his cartoon series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids), series star (I Spy), megaseries star (The Cosby Show), author (Fatherhood, Time Flies, Love and Marriage), producer, jazz musician (Where You Lay Your Head, My Appreciation), sports enthusiast (track-and-field devotee, car-racing team sponsor, tennis-book author), political ally (to Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins), college benefactor (to Howard University), would-be network head and self-appointed TV spokesman/critic. His conversation is equally scattered. One minute he sounds like an omniscient father figure and wellspring of show business know-how, the next he's a downright fuddy-duddy whose rants and raves about the way things ought to be seem muddled and misdirected. Though the latter has given him a reputation for indulging his own ego, the 56-year-old actor is at least trying to do the right thing — fight the status quo.
As he reenters the TV game this week with the first in a series of two-hour movies, The Cosby Mysteries (NBC), and an I Spy reunion move (CBS), Cos is riffing about his favorite cause. “TV recycles mediocrity,” he professes. “The Midwest is blamed for not being intelligent enough to understand quality writing, so you have these executives with business degrees telling writers with degrees in literature what to write for the 'dumb people.'”
His new ventures, he promises, won't fall into that trap. For instance, The Cosby Mysteries, in which Cosby plays a forensics specialist (with Lynn Whitfield as his love interest), is helmed by the top mystery writers William Link (creator of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote) and David Black (Law & Order). Cosby credits NBC network brass for these hirings — albeit backhandedly. “There are times when bosses decide that a person has too much power,'” he says, avoiding any personal reference. “So they set in motion a whole bunch of people with one philosophy — 'Don't give him everything he wants, because he's got too much power, he doesn't know everything and he'll go crazy. How did he get to be this star? We don't know, but we're gonna stop that right now.' So they send in all these C-grade people.” Finally, the compliment: “Here, they didn't do that.”
But there was a time when they did, and the memory of it still makes Cosby bristle. Coming off The Cosby Show, the series that skyrocketed NBC and kicked the actor's net worth into the stratosphere, Cosby executive-produced Malcolm-Jamal Warner's spin-off, Here and Now. The show, about a graduate student counseling at a youth center, was given a poor time slot and was panned by the critics. Cosby, who was starring in the listless remake of You Bet Your Life, was fingered for Here and Now's preachiness and poor humor.
“It is my belief that the show was circumvented by the people at the network,” he defends. “'Cause I was doing You Bet Your Life, and I thought everything was on track, and everybody [on the show] had the same feeling. But there were low-grade jokes, not the kind that I had done on The Cosby Show. The writers were coming from another show, and they thought that they were the executive producers and didn't know that I was the executive producer. And I kept saying [to the network], 'I don't think these guys really understand what it is I want.' And by the time it got to airtime, the battle of who was in charge became very, very nasty.”
Whether Cosby was wrongfully stripped of this power or simply not minding the store, he's angry — at the network and the critics. For Cosby, Here and Now symbolizes one more failed attempt to put wholesome, uplifting images in front of the public. His priorities for The Cosby Mysteries are to portray the show's setting of New York City in a positive way, to present “old-fashioned romance” and to avoid the use of guns or graphic violence — and then show it to the public, “not to [USA Today critic] Matt Roush,” he rails.
In some ways, Cosby's like a bad gospel singer — his desire to express pure and righteous themes is thwarted by his inability to hit the right notes. For instance, somewhere in this quote about critics lies a valid point: “They come up with two, three wacko lines... and cannot handle that kind of power. So it comes down to whatever number amendment it is that protects them. But that's not it at all,” he quickly adds. “What protects them more than anything else is, 'What's the big deal?' That quote. 'So I made four mistakes — what the big deal?'”
In any case, Cosby showed the bosses and critics what a big deal it really was when he made several bids over the past year to buy NBC. An actor buying a network? Clearly, many thought, this was the attack of the killer ego, a delusionist who thinks he can play with the big boys. “What you have to understand is, I wasn't the only one,” Cosby explains. “I was the only one as far as the press was concerned, and then finally they had to name the other partners. The excitement of it was this entertainer, who is an African-American, was out to try and raise money to run a network. And then it comes down to, 'Can he run a network?' Well, what is the question really?'”
He forces the question again, directly to his interviewer. Given a reply that most network heads are guys in suits and not performers, he hammers, “They're white. That's the issue. What makes an entertainer any dumber than some executive? I mean, can you even tell me why they keep saying TV is the way it is and now an entertainer decides to try and run a part of the network and he's gonna do worse? You tell me I can't run a network? Bring me an old wreck that's beat up and you say, 'You can't run this?' The question should be, 'Why would you want to?'”
Power, yes — but not just for power's sake. “There are people, regardless of race, color, creed, who are not being seen, heard, mainly because they don't fit into the C-grade media mold,” he says. “If a guy wants to sell pop or beer [on TV], he doesn't care what the IQ is of the woman or man who buys it. So it leaves [programming] open for people with no particular moral convictions.” Will he take another stab at staking claim of NBC? “No, it's over,” he answers. “Couldn't get it.”
But he will keep fighting, despite recent accusations of putting his moral foot in his mouth. He lambasted HBO, a network that has given hard-edged black comics a voice with Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam, for not supporting minority comics “unless you become what they think is black.” He also took shots at Fox's hit Living Single for its black female characters, who, in his opinion, do little more than sit around and talk about men.
Whether he scores a hit again with The Cosby Mysteries, or whether he ever regroups for another attempt at a network coup, Cosby will keep talking. Chances are he'll make a few more bloopers, sound defensive, arrogant or even misinformed — but he will err on the side of trying to make the TV world a better place. “You cannot tell me that television doesn't impress people,” Cosby says emphatically. “That a show where people are ugly in mind, mean in mind, doesn't make an impression for some people to follow through with. Why do you put a commercial on television that tries to sell beer with people in tight jeans or women bouncing around if it doesn't make an impression? I'm not talking about censorship per se, but an executive who says, 'The Midwest will never understand,' who keeps nothing but C-grade writers and recycles them, is censoring good writers who are somewhere in this world doing something other than writing. And that,” he adds, “is the kind of censorship we don't need.”