Bill Cosby Interview (1969)
excerpted from PLAYBOY, May 1969
Playboy: In the midst of your own luxury, do you ever feel guilty when you think about the poverty in which most of black Americans are forced to live?
Cosby: ...Now, when I meet a guy in the ghetto, of course he’s going to be envious, but he doesn’t necessarily resent me for it: there’s a whole lot of cats in the ghetto to whom I Spy was something to be proud of, in a way. I certainly was, and I can only thank one man for making it happen: Sheldon Leonard.
Playboy: How did you meet him?
Cosby: It was really funny, man, and it wasn’t funny. I went into this business after hearing Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner do their 2000-year-old-man routine. I loved their flow of humor, the looseness of it and the fact that any second, a piece of greatness could suddenly be created. So I decided to go into show business to do this kind of comedy. I figured I’d eventually need a partner, then I go on television, do two or three guest shots, and suddenly I’m playing at the Crescendo in Los Angeles. Remember, now, I’m in show business for two years, and Carl Reiner comes by to see the show and afterward he says, “I loved your show, man.” Well, of course, I’m stunned. Like, Carl Reiner-one half of the 2000-year-old-man thing--came to see me! Now, this is before militancy and Watts and Detroit, when it was still something else for a white star to come see a black man. And he says, “My producer, Sheldon Leonard, wants to see you. He couldn’t be here tonight, but he loves your work.
The next morning, I went to Sheldon’s office, hoping perhaps that he would give me a guest shot on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Now, mind you, I couldn’t act at all; I’d never done any acting, except a couple of lies to my mother. So I walked into Sheldon’s office and he talks to me, not about doing a Van Dyke Show but about a new series that would co-star a black man and a white man. They’re going to be spies and they’re going to travel to Hong Kong. Now, here I am, my first time in California, only the third time I’ve ever been out of Pennsylvania, and this guy is talking about Hong Kong. That knocked me out of my chair more than the series. I said, “Travel to Hong Kong? This program is going to pay my way to Hong Kong?” And Sheldon is telling me he thinks I’ve got the particular personality that will work for his show and that all I have to do is the same thing on TV that I do in my stand-up act, and that’ll be my job. Then he says, like, Can you act?” And I say, “You must be high. You didn’t see me when I did Othello in Central Park last year, did ya?” And he smiles and all I’m thinking is about is, “Hong Kong, Hong Kong, man. I’m gonna see the original Chinese people, the ones I’ve read about.” So I get back to my manager, Roy Silver, and I tell him. “Don’t let this cat off the hook, ‘cause if he’s blowing smoke, we’re not letting him get out of it.” Well, Sheldon said he’d get in touch with me a year later. And he did.
Playboy: Before the show actually got under way, it was reported that you didn’t want to play a hip valet, since no matter how hip you were, you’d still be a white man’s servant. Was this true?
Cosby: I had to find out a lot of things from Sheldon before I signed. Like, was I going to carry a gun? I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have to go off into the bushes when an I Spy fight started. They said I didn’t So Bob Culp and I fought the international Communist conspiracy on an equal basis. I must tell you, though, that the show wouldn’t have been what it was if it hadn’t been for Bob.
Playboy: Had you met him before you started working together?
Cosby: No. I met him when the show began filming. But he did send me a letter not to long after Sheldon first talked to me, when I was playing Mister Kell’s in Chicago. The letter said that two guys going to do a series must get married, that they are married. Right away, this was actor talk, and I had only been in the business around three years. Here was an actor telling me I have to marry him. That upset me a little.
Playboy: How did it go when you finally got together with Culp?
Cosby: The first time I saw Bob was the first day we read for the series; I walked in and we shook hands, but we didn’t really have a chance to talk before they gave us scripts. Then it was the moment of truth for me: All the fears, anxieties, and apprehensions were bubbling and boiling, because now I had to prove myself. Although the producers were with me, they were really listening to see if I could act. I’d never read a single line for Sheldon Leonard--and when you think about that, about a producer banking half a million dollars on a guy whose comedy routine he liked, it becomes quite a gamble. Well, they listened, and I was embarrassed, because I was no good--really no good. I fumbled and mumbled and couldn’t concentrate or do anything right.
But afterward, Bob and I got to together and talked and , at Bob’s suggestion, we agreed to make the relationship between the white character, Kelly Robinson, and the black man, Alexander Scott, a beautiful relationship, so that people could see what it would be like if two cats like that could get along. Bob’s a fine actor and a fine human being. He could have made it tough for me; he could have made me paranoid with criticism, because my ego came into play. At the time, I was a pretty well known, up-and-coming comic and if he’s been rough on me, it would have been too easy for me to say to myself, “What do I need all this for?” In other words, if Bob hadn’t been the great guy he is, I might have copped out.
Playboy: Were you still nervous when the filming began?
Cosby: It was really weird man. As a comedian, I can walk out in front of 5000 people and not worry about a thing. Not a thing, believe me. But to stand up a face a camera and crew of maybe 15 guys and get up tight about it--to me that’s weird. It took a lot of weeks before I felt relaxed and able to do my thing without being self-conscious.
Playboy: How did you feel about playing and, in a real sense, glamorizing a CIA agent?
Cosby: Well, actually, the CIA never let us say we were CIA agents.
Playboy: But, in effect, you were, weren’t you?
Cosby: In effect, yes. But the important thing to me, man, was to get a black face on the screen and let him be a hero. I would have done it regardless of what the CIA’s image was at the time--and the series was conceived and drawn up well before the CIA got to be a heavy. I was very, very happy--forget the CIA--that a black man was able to be on an equal basis with the show’s white hero.
Playboy: One continuing criticism of the show’s series was that Bob Culp always got the girls, which seemed to make him a little more equal than you. Did you resent that?
Cosby: If you weren’t a steady viewer, you might have missed some of Scotty’s love stories. But that concerned me less than the fact that Sheldon Leonard didn’t hire me as a token. He said he wanted to use a Negro. Now, at that particular time, how was the black man acccepted by the public? I’ll tell you: Before we even got the first show on the air, writers and poll takers had picked us to wind up 97th out of 100 shows. We originally were going to work I Spy like a funny Lone Ranger and Tonto, where-in I would supply the humor. I accepted that, man, because that’s the way it was; there was nothing else going. I felt I could surely brings some things out in this character, because here was a guy who carried a gun and knew karate, so at least he was going to be able to shoot and fight. As long as Scotty wasn’t going to let the other cat beat up the bad guys after he got knocked out, as long as he wasn’t going to be carried home so he could do the paperwork, I felt it would be OK. Bob, by the way, wrote the first I Spy script in which I was interested in a woman--who turned out to be Eartha Kitt.
Playboy: How did you develop the character of Scott?
Cosby: Well, the first thing I decided was to make this guy, who was intelligent on paper, a real human being. If you know a guy who has a Ph.D. or a master’s, you know he king of respects what he has, but he doesn’t talk as if he is always conscious of the degree. He’ll say “ain’t” and “got” and “I’m gonna,” all the time knowing technically, grammatically what’s going on. So I decided to make Alexander Scott this kind of guy--a guy who grew up in the ghetto, who went to school and took on middle-class values, who was trying to live like the white middle class. But he always knew he was black, with a degree of black pride.
Playboy: When did you feel you had Scott really pegged?
Cosby: After about the seventh story. I felt I could kind of walk into it. It was almost as if I just woke up one morning, went to work and knew it was cool.
Playboy: Did you feel, as many critics did, that I Spy’s scripts were often secondary to the banter between you and Culp?
Cosby: Bob and I--and the producers--wanted the shows to have stronger stories, but we never really got them. They became watered-down mystery plots. And in our third year, a couple of the shows turned out to be walking National Geographic magazines; our backs would be to the camera and you could see the Aegean over our shoulders. Or we’d be looking over the edge of a beautiful cliff on the Mediterranean.
Playboy: Were you relieved or disappointed when the show was canceled after its third year?
Cosby: Both. When I first got the news, I felt, like, “I’m free”; but after a few minutes, I started thinking about all those hours I would have off. I started thinking about our producers--Sheldon Leonard, Morton Fine and David Friedkin--and how unhappy they had to be. About all the grips and people who made a living from the show. And I wondered about all the things we could have--should have--done on the show. But that isn’t the way TV is set up. We were there to make the dollar. The only way I can look at it is that we were in 74th place after three years and to go into a fourth season wouldn’t have made much sense. So NBC decided to shoot a brand-new show that went an hour and cost only half as much as I Spy. Finally, it was just a matter of economics. But we had some new things in mind for the forth year, and I’m kind of sorry we didn’t get a chance to do them.
Playboy: What were they?
Cosby: Well, our producers had opened their eyes and ears to us. It was easier for Bob and me to kidnap a producer and lock him up in his room than for Columbia students to get their grievances taken care of. We got Sheldon to agree to more love stories for me in the fourth season, also to more scripts for Bob carrying a whole show by himself. And, for dessert, we wanted to bring the boys together in a couple of stories where there’d be no script, no nothing: they’d just walk around kind of improvising. So it would have been a new show.