Like so many later-comedians, Bill Cosby described himself in school as “the class clown”. Born in 1937, William Henry Cosby worked at several different jobs growing up, including selling produce, stocking shelves in a supermarket, and apprenticing in a shoe repair store. He served four years in the U.S. Navy and later entered Temple University on a track and field scholarship. (He also played fullback on the Temple football team.)
While at Temple, Cosby started working as a bartender to supplement his income. Realizing he had a knack for making the customers laugh while serving them drinks, Cosby decided to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. In 1963, he received his first national exposure with an appearance on “The Tonight Show”. In 1964, he recorded the first of his now-classic comedy albums “Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow….right!“
By 1965, Cosby was one of the hottest nightclub comics in America. Enter writer/actor Robert Culp, who had written a script where he was to star as a James bond-style secret agent. Culp brought the script to producer Carl Reiner, who told him to show it to producer Sheldon Leonard, who was developing a new series called “I Spy“. Leonard soon signed Culp to star in his new “spy series” as spy and “tennis bum”, Kelly Robinson, and now set about to find Culp a co-star.
The co-starring character in “I Spy” was named Alexander Scott and was originally intended to be an older, mentor-type character- oh yes, he was also supposed to be Caucasian. But one night, after catching the stand-up comedy act of Cosby, Leonard’s fertile mind started percolating. He felt Bill Cosby would be perfect in the role of Alexander Scott. Of course, nowadays, the solution would be simple: just hire Cosby. But this was 1965 and the times were a bit different. If Cosby was hired, this would be the first time in the history of television that a black American would co-star in a dramatic series.
Showing courage and foresight, as well as a keen sense of talent, Leonard threw caution to the wind and hired the popular stand-up comic, who had, at this time, never acted professionally in his life. Premiering on September 15, 1965, “I Spy” was an immediate hit, and the 28-year-old Cosby took to acting like the proverbial fish to water.
In an early episode, “Danny was a Million Laughs”, guest actor Martin Landau made a racial joke at Cosby’s expense. Both Culp and Cosby bristled at the crude “humor” and insisted no racial references would ever be made again on the show; for the rest of the show’s run, that’s exactly what happened. Both agreed that “our statement is a non-statement”, Culp later recalled.
For its debut 1965-66 season, “I Spy” was a hit and rated in the “top twenty” most popular shows in the coveted Nielsen ratings. All was not smooth sailing though, as you might expect. Some southern affiliates refused to air the series due to an “African”-American actor being shown on the same level as a white actor. Cosby also received, for the era, the seemingly obligatory mounds of hate mail and death threats.
Aside from these cruel caveats, “I Spy” became established as a highly creative, as well as popular show, beloved by its millions of loyal fans. For those who haven’t seen the show, working as two undercover agents, Kelly Robinson’s cover was as a tennis player, while Alexander Scott’s was that of his manager/trainer. Not only was Cosby’s character never subservient to Culp’s, Cosby’s “Scotty” was portrayed as the smarter of the two, being a Rhodes Scholar who was fluent in several languages. Culp’s “Kelly” was a “tennis bum”, a drinker and womanizer, with less discipline than the more level-headed “Scotty”. Beyond that, the two were shown as equals.
Mirroring real life, Cosby’s character never smoked or drank. Cosby also added other autobiographical touches to “Scotty”- like Cosby, the character was born and grew up in Philadelphia and went to Temple University (Cosby is seen wearing a Temple sweatshirt in several episodes.)
For his role in “I Spy”, Cosby won three consecutive Emmy awards for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series”, in each season of “I Spy’s” brief three-year run (beating out his co-star each year!) “I Spy” also won a Golden Globe award for “Best Dramatic Series” in 1967.
Finally, in 1968, after three seasons (82 episodes), “I Spy” was canceled, but not before the great Bill Cosby did something no black American had ever done before, co-starred in a dramatic TV series.
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- The first African American to star on any network TV series was Ethel Waters in Beulah, which ran on TV from 1950 to 1954 (previously being on radio starting in 1945).
- Nichelle Nichols very soon became another to star in a major network TV show, though she nearly left the show. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced Nichols (who incidentally later went on to work for NASA), to continue on with the role of Uhura after the first season of Star Trek. Nichols stated he told her not to leave the show because she was not only playing a black person as a main character on TV, but she was also playing a character that didn’t conform to the stereotypical black person of the day usually portrayed. Rather, Uhura was portrayed as an intelligent member of the crew and an equal to those around her.
- This seems to have had the intended effect. Whoopi Goldberg once stated when she first saw the character of Uhura on TV, she said “Momma! There’s a black lady on TV, and she ain’t no maid!” It was partially because of this that Goldberg became a huge Star Trek fan and later pushed so hard to get a character on Star Trek the Next Generation, despite the disbelief of the producers that she’d actually want to be on the show.
- Astronaut Ronald McNair, the second black person in space (who also died in the Challenger explosion), was inspired to become an astronaut because of the character of Uhura. McNair’s brother stated,
Now, Star Trek showed the future where there were black folk and white folk working together. I just looked at it as science fiction, ’cause that wasn’t going to happen, really.’ But Ronald saw it as science possibility. He came up during a time when there was Neil Armstrong and all of those guys; so how was a colored boy from South Carolina – wearing glasses, never flew a plane – how was he gonna become an astronaut? But Ron was one who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm, you know? That was for other people. And he got to be aboard his own Starship Enterprise.”
- In one episode of “I Spy”, Scotty is being tortured by enemy spies and is asked his name, to which he replies, “Fat Albert”. Cosby would go on to create the show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” four years after “I Spy” concluded.
- The witty banter between Culp and Cosby (often completely ad-libbed) soon became the show’s trademark. Among the impactful gems, Culp and Cosby’s ad-libbing brought the word “wonderfulness” into the American pop culture vernacular of the sixties. (Cosby was to later release a comedy album called “Wonderfulness”.)
- Another unique feature of “I Spy” were it’s locales. Simulating the ever-popular James Bond films, the show took Kelly and Scotty to exotic locations from Spain to Japan, including Morocco, Athens, Rome, Venice, Acapulco, Hong Kong and Florence. (Also, “I Spy” is, to the best of my knowledge, the only TV series of the 1960s to film an episode on location in Vietnam.)
- Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were to remain close friends until Culp’s passing in 2010.