Once upon a time, Bill Cosby
was busy breaking barriers
By JOHN STANLEY
BACK IN THE SUMMER of 1964, the same week that Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack flick "Robin and the Seven Hoods" was opening on Market Street, the hottest show in San Francisco was at the hungry i. That was the famous North Beach night club where impresario Enrico Banducci was showcasing a young up-and-coming black comic named Bill Cosby.
At the time nobody knew it, but William H. Cosby Jr., at 27, was breaking the color barrier in the racially-restricted world of stand-up comedy. He was already well on his way to becoming the first black artist to crash out of the career-limiting "chitlin circuit" of black night clubs and theaters.
His was a stand-up act that relied on a relaxed, almost intimate style that eschewed one-liners for warm, anecdotal childhood stories. Cosby's point of view was often child-like, and his unusual approach paid off in more bookings into the best American comedy clubs, and a series of six Grammy-winning records. All the while, Cosby was setting the stage for a stream of black entertainers that would soon follow him, everyone from Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy.
At the time nobody knew this, either: That in less than a year Cosby would also break the color barrier of network television and become the first "Negro" (this was before "black" or "Afro-American" became the acceptable terms) to star in a prime-time series . . . playing undercover agent Alexander Scott (or "Scotty"), the partner to Robert Culp's spy guy Kelly Robinson. The show was "I Spy," which premiered on NBC in September 1965.
There were racists who resented this and a few NBC affiliate stations in the Deep South threatened not to carry the show if Cosby was cast. But producer Sheldon Leonard, a long-time radio, TV and film actor before he decided to go behind the cameras, refused to be intimidated. The show went on to become a network hit, lasting three seasons and bringing Cosby three Emmys before it was over.
I'd met Cosby twice during those early years of "I Spy," covering him in the entertainment pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. And memories of those meetings washed over me recently when I discovered that Image Entertainment was releasing all of the episodes of "I Spy" in an inexpensive DVD series.
Curious about how the shows held up after almost 35 years, I watched the first disc in the series, spending all of $14.95 for four complete 50-minute color episodes. All four show were set in Hong Kong and featured such stalwarts as Vera Miles, Philip Ahn, Jeanette Nolan, Keye Luke and Martin Landau. The production values, for a TV series, were astounding. I felt as if I were watching full-length features.
As I had been instantly charmed by Cosby at the hungry i back in `64, so was I charmed all over again by the cool and relaxed way in which he portrayed Scotty. Without any previous acting experience, he seems to have glided into the role effortlessly. He played it restrained, except for those moments when he entered into fanciful word games with costar Culp.
Long before William Goldman was creating wisecracks for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, writers-creators David Friedkin and Morton Fine had established the "buddy" formula. Cosby played trainer and traveling companion to Culp's world-roving tennis star. That was on the surface. Underneath, they were ops for an unnamed U.S. spy service, usually carrying out an assignment that involved a nuclear bomb or some Communist takeover of a country. The series was one of the first to rove the world, shooting its exteriors in such exotic locations as Madrid, Acapulco, Marrakesh, Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City and even Las Vegas. And of course Hong Kong.
One of the unsung heroes of "I Spy" was Fouad Said, a cinematographer who designed his own streamlined equipment vans and used lightweight camera and lighting equipment so his team could shoot quickly and move from location to location as fast as possible.
Friedkin and Fine, a pair of producers largely forgotten today, were as important to the success of "I Spy" as the chemistry of Cosby and Culp. They were an unusual writing team who had first worked together in entertainment-radio during the 1940s, scripting some of the classic adventure shows for "Escape."
They were the idea men for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall's "Bold Venture," a radio series that borrowed its inspiration from the feature "To Have and Have Not." Friedkin and Fine also did scripts for "Broadway Is My Beat" (starring Larry Thor, who turns up occasionally in small "I Spy" supporting roles) and "The Line-Up." Their best work for old-time radio, however, was the 1953-54 series "Crime Classics," in which the team took a tongue-in-cheek approach to historical crimes that ranged from the death of Jesse James to the grisley murders committed in London's Whitechapel by Jack the Ripper. "Crime Classics" recounted awful events with an air of gentility, enhanced by the chamber-music scores of Bernard Herrmann.
This same kind of whimsical, non-formulaic approach is what makes "I Spy" hold up so well today. While they appear on the surface to be traditional cloak-and-dagger stuff, "I Spy" stories are sublime and offbeat, established in a cliche framework and then wrenched in new, startling directions. Intermingle this with the witty repartee of Culp and Cosby and "I Spy" glows like no other series from its time period.
In all, there are 19 discs in the Image series. The first 18 feature four complete episodes, the 19th features three. This is definitely a feast for fans of unusual spy yarns and characterizations. A highlight is the appearance of Boris Karloff in "Mainly on the Plains," a 1967 episode (disc 11) in which the charming Briton portrays a nuclear scientist who thinks he is Don Quixote, and literally tilts at windmills on Spanish locations. On the same disc is Peter Lawford in "Get Thee to a Nunnery" and Salome Jens in "A Room with a Rack," a spy-torture tale that is completely whacky, as only Friedkin and Fine could tell it. (In this episode, Cosby mentions "Fat Albert" during a hallucinatory experience.)
Something extraordinary did indeed click between the stars. While the buddy formula has been beaten to death in countless films since the 1960s, the exchanges between Culp and Cosby are still fresh, combining the genius of Cosby's stand-up comedy and what seem to be spontaneous ad libs. This makes for a firm, believable relationship that carries from episode to episode.
"All that jazz is locker-room talk," Cosby tells me the first time I meet him at the compact Cahuenga-Desilu lot in Hollywood, where the interiors for the series were shot. It is February, 1966. "See, we're just two guys who dig each other and talk a lot. Yatta yatta, you know, dialogue. We got this set of signals. The audience is tuned in, hip to the lingo, the jive.
"Let me tell you a hot flash. We're a lot cooler than the `77 Sunset Strip' crowd [a reference to a once-popular private eye series produced at Warner Bros. with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Roger Moore]. We're two guys who've got warmth and character going for us. And we're human, too."
Cosby talks nonstop about upcoming shows to be shot in Monterey, Malibu, the Greek islands, even San Francisco. "Hey," he says, "that's our biggest advantage over all the other shows, the fact that we travel so much. You take `Ben Casey' [a once-trendy medical series with Vince Edwards]. What does that show have? Nothing but the same hospital and all that stuff. Same colored walls, drab corridors, nothing new for the eyes. All that's different from week to week are the guests and the diseases.
"Now, you take `I Spy.' In Hong Kong, for example, you've got different kinds of hotel rooms, different people, different customs, different sights. Mexico changes it all again. So does Tokyo. Now, you take the clothes. At first we went around in these suits and ties rescuing people. But when we were in Acapulco we watched these Secret Service guys protecting Lynda Bird [Johnson]. Talk about being inconspicuous. Eyeglasses and the whole bit. Couldn't even see if they were packing rods. So Bob [Culp] and I decided to go native. Besides, it was hot in Acapulco and we wanted shorter sleeves.
"So now, instead of two handsome heroes in subtle tweed suits, we became like two handsome tourists who rescued people."
I have this memory of Cosby constantly putting me on, and then saying something that sounded totally serious. After a while I'm not sure if anything he says is to be taken seriously. Such as:
"I want to retire by 1971. You heard me right, man. 1971, my year. That's the big deal. I'm socking all my dough into investments, stocks, blue chips, all the going money things. This acting is going to be only a small part of my life. Going to become a junior high school teacher. Make my home in Philly. Raise seven kids." (At that time, Cosby and his wife Camille [Hanks] had one daughter, Erica, with their second due in August. His prediction of seven kids was close. He ended up with four daughters and a son, Ennis, who was shot to death in 1997.)
Hawking the idea of becoming a teacher sounded farfetched, given Cosby's growing stardom. However, he had already earned a bachelor's degree from Temple University in Philly. (In 1972 he took time out to earn his Master's and again in 1977 for his doctorate in education; today he's still an active trustee at Temple.)
How had the opportunity to star in "I Spy" come about? "A brainstorm," answers Cosby. "In the mind of Sheldon Leonard. He saw me at the hungry i in San Francisco two years ago and that's when he had the brilliant idea to use me in a cloak-and-dagger deal. Every young performer hopes and prays and dreams for the kind of break that `I Spy' brought me. But I never even wanted to dream about it. It'd scare me. I always thought I'd have to work, work, work and finally, one day, somebody'd say `Let's put that Cosby fella into a picture," and I'd work some more more more, and someone else would say `Let's put that Cosby fella into another picture' and on and on, but never a TV series. Never never never that. It was catapult time."
Although "I Spy" in 1966 was demanding six days of his time to complete an episode, he was still finding time to fly away to college concerts and night club gigs, and was still cutting comedy records at a furious rate. "That's good because when I do come back to `I Spy' I'm always a little bit richer."
What was the first thing he learned when he faced the camera? "I learned that a stand-up comedian was an entirely different occupation from that of an actor. In night clubs you have make-believe totally, but in acting you have make-believe and reality side by side, and you have to discover the way those two things are balanced. So you could say I'm like a juggler, doing a balancing act in this great big circus thing.
"As a comedian, you deliver a line and, hopefully, get a laugh. As an actor you memorize a line of dialogue and work on a feeling based on what's around you at the moment. So you react and you've got a scene. I t becomes believable or it stinks to high heaven. It becomes outstanding or its just passable."
As he was in the midst of the show's second season, he feels that he and Culp are really in rapport as never before. "We really know what we're doing, while early in the first season we were feeling our way. The crews and directors are getting to know us better and what to expect. You might say we've become sort of like a family and all that jazz."
My second meeting with Cosby occurs in the summer of 1967, while he is at the San Francisco Zoo shooting "An American Empress," an episode with guest star France Nuyen in which Kelly and Scotty stumble across a plot to gain control of the Chinese government. Cosby and Culp are in a mood to stay in character as Kelly and Scotty and perpetuate their on-screen bantering by putting on visitors to the Fleishhacker Zoo location that day.
Curious about the storyline, I ask Nuyen, the Eurasian screen beauty, for plot details. "I portray an empress who has spent all her life in San Francisco," the beauty tells me, but is abruptly interrupted by Culp who blurts out, "Don't ask for details. She hasn't read the script yet so she doesn't know what's going on."
The setting is the Orangutan Pit. Culp, clad in green shirt, gray sportscoat and slacks, stands in front of the enclosure with faint touches of gray in his thick head of hair. "In fact," he adds, "I haven't read the script myself. None of us know what's going on here." He strolls away with the Eurasian beauty clinging to his arm. Over his shoulder, he says, "Well, I do know one thing. This lovely woman is my love interest."
One of the orangutans in the pit makes a funny sound and throws an empty feedsack over its head.
"Don't listen to that guy Culp," says Cosby, who is left standing alone in front of the orangutan compound. He makes a Bill Cosby face. "Culp's no good. A wise guy with a fast quip. Don't listen to him. Evil lurks in his heart." Cosby is dressed in a brown suit, yellow tie (with brown spots) and suede shoes. From the way he peers from behind his glasses, he seems to be a man in the know, a man who stays on top of things. So maybe he could explain the story line
Culp comes bounding back across the shooting area, now coatless and without Nuyen. He clutches a bag of roasted peanuts in one hand. "Attack! Attack! You fool!" He is addressing the orangutan which had earlier thrown the sack over its head. The creature darts suddenly, swinging across the precipitous pit from limb to limb. "He's always getting excited," says Culp. "He behaves like some people I know."
"Quiet," orders Cosby. "We're trying to shoot a scene here. Do you mind keeping it down. You are very rude, you know that?"
Over in front of the parrot cages, three Asian heavies watch with deadpan expressions, although they clearly project a kind of menace. Director Earl Bellamy seems satisfied with their sense of danger and orders the scene to be printed.
Everyone then heads for Monkey Island, home for an assortment of spider monkeys. While the camera team readies for the next scene, Cosby is rescued from an overwhelming group of autograph seekers by a fast-thinking assistant director. Sighing with a sense of relief, the actor plops into a folding chair with his name lettered across its canvas back. "Go ahead and sit in Culp's chair," says Cosby. "He won't need it. He can stand on his own two feet without it.
"Man, this is the life," he continues, lighting up a huge brown cigar. He makes an all-encompassing swoop with one arm. "Making TV shows, traveling all over the world. Just came back from Greece. Next we head for Mexico. Jungle stuff. Then England and Ireland. This acting racket is something. But it has its wear and tear on the human soul. I don't do so many concerts anymore. A guy gets tired after a while. One way that Bob and I survive the grind: we ad lib. Thast way the mind's always alert. And we generate that much more realism."
A sly youngster slips through the cordon and asks Cosby for his autograph. "How much money do you make?" asks the tot.
"Three dollars a day," says Cosby. The child runs away, clutching his precious piece of paper.
Cosby sighs again. "Sure, I get tired. But what advantages when you're known and loved. Like that boy there. People recognize you on sight. Everyone wants to meet you. There's no sweat about ticket sales at my concerts. You go out on that stage knowin' you're gonna be appreciated. You know you're gonna be loved."
Does he have a favorite "I Spy" episode? "Yeah, any episode that provides me with love interest. I'm no Roy Rogers hung up on his horse. It's important that I get a fair share of the spoils. It makes the black people watching the show feel good to see Alexander Scott win a heart now and again. Besides, viewers get tired of seeing sour lips over there"--a gesture in Culp's direction--"holding a girl in his arms all the time."
(One of the best examples of a romantic episode is "Trial by Treehouse" [disc 7], in which Cosby has a warm romance with Cicely Tyson.)
A crew member throws a sack of carrots into the center of Monkey Island to attract a large share of the animals into the range of the upcoming camera shot. Culp approaches holding a left-over carrot and hands it to Cosby. "Hey, man, chew on this for a while. It'll do the trick for you. Or maybe you should hold it over your shoulder as a peace offering to these wonderful beasts before us. See what happens." Culp returns to the side of Nuyen.
"I gotta be fair with Bob," says Cosby, taking another puff on his brown cigar and chewing on it a little bit. "He's helped me a lot when it comes to acting. Thanks to him I've learned how to relax. I've found myself a style."
Has this acting experience changed his night-club routines or record material in any way? "Sure has. Helps me to put across the reality of a situation that much better. And that's the basic rule in comedy: Make the scene believable, then come on like Gangbusters with the humor. Mark Twain wrote that way. He painted a scene before he sprinkled in the laughs."
His favorite comedians? "W.C. Fields, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Because they paint that reality I mentioned. Some comics, like Jerry Lewis and Abbott and Costello, don't. When they get into a jam they never fight back with any initiative. Oh, yeah, they win in the end, but only through inept action."
Say, what about the storyline for this episode about the Eurasian beauty? "Forget about the storyline, my friend. I can't help you anyway. I haven't read the script yet. Never look at the dialogue until it's time to shoot the scene. Come on, man, let's go look at the monkeys . . . "
I see Bill Cosby one more time, on a sunny day in San Francisco, in 1971. He's just finished shooting his first feature film, "Man and Boy," a Western. He's enjoying a cup of cappuccino at a North Beach café owned by Enrico Banducci, the man who booked him into the hungry i. He sits there with that cigar of his, looking like he owns the world. "I'm having a ball," he says, when I stop to say hello. "I'm back seein' my old pal Enrico. Lovin' this city. Everything is happenin' just like I told you it would. This is the life."
And for Cosby it was only the beginning.
© 2001 by John Stanley.