- - Wednesday, September 24, 2014


By Mark Whitaker
Simon & Schuster, $29.99, 544 pages

After reading Mark Whitaker’s engrossing and comprehensive account of Bill Cosby’s action-packed life, “raconteur par excellence” is probably the best way to describe the enduring laugh meister, athlete, TV star, author, Jell-O pitchman, producer, teacher and America’s quintessential father, who rose to fame as a part-time stand-up comic in the trendy cafes of Greenwich Village in the 1960s and remains a respected, major player today.

A stint on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” early in his career put him on the map. Now, at 77, he continues to perform about 100 shows a year, schlepping across the country, minus any entourage, dressed in a T-shirt inscribed with “Hello Friend” — the favorite expression of his late son — and doing what he does best: improvising, riffing and puckishly playing himself.

With the cooperation of “The Cos,” Mr. Whitaker, a former editor in chief at Newsweek, former managing editor at CNN and former NBC Washington bureau chief, scrupulously reveals many aspects of the peripatetic Temple University dropout’s storied career. There is a lot of inside showbiz detail covering the pitfalls and problems of superstardom.

The infidelities, the attention, the bickering, deceit, deals gone awry and heartbreaking betrayals are all here. There are also intriguing glimpses into the world of Mr. Cosby’s unheralded generosity to black colleges, universities and individual students along with his continual support of black actors, writers, jazz musicians, associates, friends and even strangers.

In the 1990s, at the pinnacle of the entertainment world, worth more than $300 million and fed up with stereotypes of blacks on TV, Mr. Cosby tried to purchase NBC. His aim was to help eradicate the “massacre of images.” He was rebuffed, but evolved into an outspoken force for black Americans.

“In his mid-sixties, after a career built on non-racial comedy, (he emerged) as a fierce and controversial critic of self-destructive trends in the black community,” writes Mr. Whitaker.

There is also the glitzy side. Who knew he and his wife, Camille, assembled one of the most prized black American art collections in the world and that many of those paintings hung on the walls of the fictional Huxtable home during the years of the award-winning “The Cosby Show”?

Mr. Whitaker also divulges Cosby’s affection for dogs. He has co-owned hundreds of winning show dogs and even won the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club’s Best in Show terrier award with an impeccably coiffed Dandie Dinmont.

Growing up poor in the projects of Philadelphia as he did, it took hard work for the enterprising comedian to attain the stature of cultural lion with swanky trappings — a jet, homes in California, New York and Massachusetts that housed not only his family of five children and staff, but a number of fancy sports cars and his finest Cuban cigars.

There was also tragedy. His only son, Ennis, a teacher, was shot one night while changing a tire on a road in the hills above Hollywood. It was a senseless and random killing, and Mr. Cosby has never recovered. In his New York townhouse stands a tribute to Ennis, a gilded statue of the young man to whom Mr. Cosby talks, just to talk.

After a feckless adolescence, a stint in the Navy as a physical therapist and, inspired by comic Jonathan Winters, he began a series of story-telling gigs and sold a number of immensely successful record albums. His big break was as Alexander Scott, in the memorable “I Spy” TV series. He became the first black American to co-star in a prime-time TV show, with white actor Robert Culp, who taught the fledgling performer the rudiments of the profession and wrote many scripts to highlight Scott’s character.

The two were spies posing as glamorous top-ranked tennis players exchanging fast-paced badinage while touring the world. Mr. Cosby won three consecutive Emmys for his performances, Mr. Culp zero, yet the two maintained a lifetime friendship.

In the television series, “The Bill Cosby Show,” he played an amiable gym teacher, Chet Kincaid, which laid the groundwork for “The Cosby Show,” based on his own family. It revived the sitcom, became the most popular program in America, and as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, Mr. Cosby symbolized the nation’s ideal dad. “It showed that family life is family life no matter what your race or nationality,” writes Mr. Whitaker. “That’s why people of all backgrounds across America and around the world remember the show so fondly.”

(Surfing TV channels the other night, I ran across an episode of Mr. Cosby teaching one of his daughters how to ride a bike. He was like every other parent coping with the same frustrating situation, and I realized how deeply the engaging comic still resonates in our lives.)

According to the author, the “Cosby effect” was a major influence in the election of Barack Obama.

Republican strategist Karl Rove agreed. On a television show he noted, “We’ve had an African American First Family for many years. …’The Cosby Show’ was on … . It wasn’t a black family; it was America’s family.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast.

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