Bill Cosby was just breaking out big when I began working as a stage hand. When I retired 45 years later, Cosby was still big, still working a multitude of comedy performances in the US and Canada. Over those 45 years, I easily worked over 100 of Cosby’s comedy performances, and enjoyed every one of them. But now…
The first time I worked Cosby was at Northrop Auditorium at the U of Minnesota. Cosby was hot. His comedy albums were best sellers, and his TV show, I SPY, that he co-starred in with Robert Culp was high in the ratings, as well ground breaking. First time a black actor starred in a dramatic series. First black to win an Emmy.
Working that show taught me two things about Bill Cosby: He was fun to work with. (Years later he changed.) And he was no saint. (Rumors have it, he never changed that aspect of his character.)
One of my student crew members had purchased a large poster of a very serious Culp and a smiling Cosby, standing back to back and holding guns. First chance he got, he asked Cosby to autograph it. Cosby did. But he signed it ‘Bobby Culp’. Like I said, he was fun to work with in those days.
He also asked if there was a doctor that could see him during intermission. Lew, the promoter, found a doctor who gave Cosby a quick once-over. Lew then asked me to send one of the student crew down to the drug store to get a prescription.
According to Lew, the doctor said that Cosby wasn’t wrong when he asked for a doctor. He had a bad case of the drips and needed penicillin. The doctor said Cosby wanted it to be cleared up by the time the tour ended in two weeks, and he had to go home and face his wife. The doctor told him no way would he be healed by then. He suggested that Cosby better think of a believable way to blame on a contaminated toilet seat. Like I said, he was no saint, but a lot of fun to work.
Several years later I was working one of the follow spots for a Cosby performances that was booked by Jerry the Jerk. The Jerk had an uncanny talent of making people hate him at first glance – that way it saved time. And he was always conniving to get the most out of the stagehands for the least amount of money. Two facts not lost on Cosby.
Cosby usually comes in an hour before showtime. Goes on stage. Sits in the easy chair and sees to it that the end table has an ashtray for his cigar. Tests the mike and five minutes later he’s back in his dressing room. Jerry, however, demanded Cosby do his checking at 11 a.m. so if anything wasn’t right with the lights, sound,or camera that projected his face on a picture sheet above his head, it could be done in the 4 hour minimum for the Set Up and not run into a 5th hour.
Instead of telling Jerry no, Cosby came in on time; and then he made sure he didn’t check things out until we had broken the 5th hour. The Jerk was angry and told Cosby so. Cosby told us to take an hour for lunch and come back for a rehearsal. The Jerk was real angry; but there was nothing he could do because the contract said if Cosby wanted to rehearse he would rehearse.
The rehearsal started from the top, house to black low stage lights on, Cosby walked out, the follow spots picked him up, stayed on him when he sat down and went into his routine. He told one of his funny stories in about 5 minutes, then stood up and told us the rehearsal was over. Jerry the Jerk hit the roof. Paid all that money and the rehearsal lasted less than ten minutes.
He should have kept his mouth shut. Cos said he was going to think things over and have another rehearsal in an hour. Jerry was fuming and mentioned that could result in a meal penalty if we didn’t get out for supper. Cosby told Jerry to make a list of what each hand wanted for supper and have it delivered. Naturally the meal was on Jerry.
‘You know,’ Cosby told us when we were all in the Green Room eating supper, ‘I got a doctorate in education; but there’s one thing I knew long before I got it, some people never know when to keep their mouths shut.’
Cosby grew up listening to the great comedians on the radio, like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George and Gracie, and he patterned his routines, be they live, or on TV, after them, relying on family comedy, without any profanity. And it bothered him to see the young comedians building their success on sex and profanity.
The most popular of these young comedians was Eddie Murphy. Cosby was outspoken in his condemnation of the profanity of Murphy’s routine. He said Murphy had too much natural comedic talent to have to resort to cheap laughs by using profanity. Murphy didn’t like Cosby’s advice or Cosby’s type of comedy.
I worked Eddie Murphy during the heat of this feud. A full house at the Met Ice Arena. Murphy worked an hour and a half, no intermission. If he had deleted just the word MFer out of his routine, he would have cut a good fifteen minutes out of the show. He also spent at least fifteen minutes throughout the show condemning Cosby, or as he called him, that senile old MFer.
The audience loved it. Murphy would use his favorite word, MFer, and then scream asking the audience if they were offended. Naturally the audience, thrilled to have a part in the show, would stomp their feet and clap their hands and yell back, ‘NO, you MFer’. This sophomoric display was repeated all the way through the performance.
To paraphrase Erasmus: In the Land of the Morons, the moron holding the mike is king. And as far as I am concerned, more and more morons are purchasing tickets to listen to more and more morons holding mikes.In this case, Cosby was right, even though his words only resulted in him losing the youth as fans.
In 1997, Cosby’s life took a terrible turn for the worse. His oldest son, Ennis, was murdered in, as the killer’s confession called it, ‘a robbery turned bad’. From then on, Cosby became withdrawn. He never kidded with the hands backstage. Spent his free time in his dressing room. But once he got onstage in front of the audience, he reverted back to the old Bill.
In his personal life, he became quite outspoken about the Black community; especially how he perceived the indifference to the pursuit of education. He condemned the trend of the Black families, so many single-parents, and sometimes the parenting had to be carried out by the grandparents with no parents in the picture..He saved his harshest criticism for the Black youths that took the easy way out and dealt drugs to get easy money. He has continued to expound on these themes throughout the years. And as a result he is viewed by a large contingent of the Black community, especially the youth, as a crabby old man – and now as a hypocrite.
Later on in 1997, the Elephant In The Room threatened to become public knowledge. A young girl had tried to extort money out of Cosby by claiming to be his daughter. She was jailed. In an interview with Dan Rather, Cosby acknowledged it might be true. He confessed to having an affair with the girl’s mother.
For the most part it was overlooked by the American public as being something celebrities do. Maybe though if the public had been aware of the fact Cosby paid the mother $750 per week, hush money, totaling about $100,000 while the girl was growing up, they might have taken it more seriously. And maybe if they had heard that the mother accused Cosby of drugging and raping her their first sexual encounter, they might have been more outraged.
For years, apparently, rumors had circulated about Cosby use of drugs to rape women. When women did come out with the accusations, they were not believed by the police and were not reported in the news. After all, Cosby was ‘America’s Dad’.
I was unaware of these accusations all the years I worked Cosby. I never seen him make any advances on women who were backstage. Always polite. A gentleman. But then, that’s how the 27 or so women, who recently accused him of drug rape, say he was a perfect gentleman until he got them along and spiked their drink.
Do I believe all these accusations? Well, there’s just too much smoke not to have fire. And each passing day it seems like the Elephant is getting bigger, and the Room is getting smaller.
Will it ever be proven one way or the other? Almost any sexual assault is a ‘She Said – He Said’ thing, and the most common defense for the accused is to blame the ‘victim’. Some of the accusers waited so long to speak out; mainly because they saw the ones that did speak out were often accused of lying to extort money from a rich and famous man. When you throw in celebrity status, money, and race into the mix, the waters become really muddy.
Cosby is still doing shows; but these are shows already contracted for, and the promoter fears a lawsuit if he drops Cosby. I can’t imagine a promoter booking a show now.
Cosby is old, real old, heck he’s a year older than me. There comes a point in one’s life where you just get too old to fight. Each performance brings out protesters and audience hecklers. And it will only get worse.
As I said at the top, I learned the first time I worked him, Cosby was no saint; but I never thought he would be accused of sinking this low. ‘America’s Dad’ has become ‘America’s Bad’. Oh, Bill!