Bill Cosby's Untold Story: Agony, Ambition and a Son's Tragic Murder
This story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
He was the most popular stand-up comedian of the 1960s. The most successful product pitchman of the 1970s ("Then you dip the spoon in the puddin' &hellip"). The most iconic sitcom dad of the 1980s (and the first with an upper-middle-class African-American TV family). And soon he'll be returning to NBC with a new comedy, perhaps as early as next year. Bill Cosby has been entertaining the world for so long, it's easy to forget how many breakthroughs he has made over a 50-plus-year career &mdash and how many personal tragedies he has endured.
Cosby: His Life and Times, a new biography by former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker (Sept. 16 from Simon & Schuster) written with the help of Cosby and his inner circle, is full of never-revealed details about Cosby's life &mdash his rise on the comedy scene with multiple gold records, his groundbreaking roles on TV (starting with I Spy in 1965, which made him the first African-American actor to win an Emmy) and the heartbreaking loss in 1997 of his son, Ennis, in a bizarre murder off the 405 freeway.
The Hollywood Reporter's exclusive excerpt picks up the tale in the early 1970s, with Cosby starting to bounce back from a low point after coming off of two unsuccessful TV shows (The Bill Cosby Show, The New Bill Cosby Show) and nearly being bankrupted by a corrupt business manager. It tells how he rebuilt his fortune by turning himself into a Jell-O and Coca-Cola spokesman, found his way back onto network TV with a sitcom that borrowed generously from his own family life (especially Ennis' struggles with dyslexia) and how he ultimately remade himself into the most successful African-American TV personality in the history of the medium.&mdash Andy Lewis
The product that Cosby had always dreamed of selling was Jell-O. Growing up, he had watched the greatest comedians of their eras become spokesmen for the brand: Jack Benny in the '40s, Lucille Ball in the '50s, and Andy Griffith and Jim Nabors in the '60s. "Those are acts I want to follow!" he told Norman Brokaw, his longtime agent at William Morris.
Sales had slumped as women entered the workforce and no longer had the time to make the time-consuming original recipes. Now Jell-O's ad agency was plotting a new strategy &mdash appeal to mothers through their children &mdash and realized that Cosby could be just the celebrity to do that, given his popularity with young fans of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and The Electric Company. In 1974, it began rolling out the first of what would become dozens of "Bill Cosby With Kids" campaigns, in which Cosby made children giggle with delight at the thought of Jell-O treats while announcers lectured their parents: "If you have kids, you have to have pudding!
As Cosby's renown as a pitchman grew, so did his reputation for clashing with the people who made advertising. As always, he preferred to ad lib rather than to recite ad copy word for word. Cosby was notoriously demanding about the kids in the Jell-O commercials. He thought they should reflect an array of races and ethnicities, and he would protest if he didn't get the "rainbow" he wanted. He had little time for the kind of spoiled behavior that was all too common among child models and their stage parents, and more than once he had an offending brat thrown off the set. Cosby made no excuses for his impatience with the Madison Avenue culture. Deep down, he believed that he understood the products he was selling better than most of the executives who oversaw the accounts.
Coca-Cola recruited Cosby for a huge ad campaign called "Have a Coke and a Smile." He and Bob Hope were hired to record "tags" at the end of the new Coke commercials. Hope delivered his as written, while Cosby improvised and came up with something much better. "I saw you!" Cosby said, his face capturing playful conspiracy. "I saw you! You're smiling!"
When Black Enterprise magazine published a cover story on African-American pitchmen in 1981, writer Stephen Gayle reported that the deals earned Cosby more than $3 million a year. As Anthony Tortorici, Coke's chief of public relations, put it: "The three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite and Bill Cosby."