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As a stand-up comic, author, actor and producer, Bill Cosby was revered as an All American dad, and his accomplishment was all the more remarkable as he was among the first African-American actors whose popularity knew no racial boundaries. The playful, charismatic Cosby drew much of his conversational style stand-up material from his childhood, but once he started having children of his own, they proved an endless source for his bemused accounts of parenthood. From his No. 1 rated sitcom "The Cosby Show" (NBC, 1984-1992), which painted a then rare portrait of an educated, professional and loving African-American family the likes of which had never been seen on television, to his best-selling humor books focusing on marriage and family, Cosby quietly helped break down racial barriers by finding humor in universal human experiences. From the beginning, he had planted the seeds of equality with his unprecedented starring role in a primetime drama, "I Spy" (NBC, 1965-1969), which positioned him as an equal to his white sleuthing partner, Robert Culp. His legacy lived on with his tireless dedication to positive portrayals of African-Americans and educational programming that ensured future generations...
As a stand-up comic, author, actor and producer, Bill Cosby was revered as an All American dad, and his accomplishment was all the more remarkable as he was among the first African-American actors whose popularity knew no racial boundaries. The playful, charismatic Cosby drew much of his conversational style stand-up material from his childhood, but once he started having children of his own, they proved an endless source for his bemused accounts of parenthood. From his No. 1 rated sitcom "The Cosby Show" (NBC, 1984-1992), which painted a then rare portrait of an educated, professional and loving African-American family the likes of which had never been seen on television, to his best-selling humor books focusing on marriage and family, Cosby quietly helped break down racial barriers by finding humor in universal human experiences. From the beginning, he had planted the seeds of equality with his unprecedented starring role in a primetime drama, "I Spy" (NBC, 1965-1969), which positioned him as an equal to his white sleuthing partner, Robert Culp. His legacy lived on with his tireless dedication to positive portrayals of African-Americans and educational programming that ensured future generations would grow up focusing on their similarities rather than their differences.
William Cosby was born in Philadelphia, PA, on July 12, 1937. With his father overseas serving in the Navy during most of his childhood, Cosby was raised in public housing mostly by his domestic worker mother. His grandfather was one of his earliest influences, and the man's humorous, entertaining stories captivated Cosby as much as storytelling comedians like Jonathan Winters who he loyally listened to on the radio and then television. By elementary school, Cosby earned a reputation as the class entertainer, as well as an accomplished athlete. Schoolwork remained a distant interest once Cosby hit high school, where he became class president, a track star and, at the same time, held down a string of jobs to contribute to the family income. By tenth grade, he dropped out of school altogether; choosing instead to follow in his father's footsteps by joining the Navy. He served as a Navy medical corpsman, aiding in the physical rehabilitation of Korean War veterans. While serving, Cosby earned his high school diploma and also played basketball, football and toured nationally with the Navy track team. His five years of service and travels gave Cosby a newfound interest in education as a means to a better life, so upon his discharge in 1961, he landed a track scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia.
While pursuing a major in physical education with an eye towards teaching, Cosby maintained a busy schedule of schoolwork and college sports, but it was his part-time job as a bartender that set him on his ultimate career path. His witty rapport with his customers led to impromptu stand-up performances on a makeshift stage, and in no time, he was being paid to perform in San Francisco and New York's Greenwich Village, where his conversational, no-punchline style fit in with an emerging breed of new comics like Woody Allen. When the offers became too good to turn down, Cosby put his college career on hold and toured the country with his act, making it on to "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1954- ) in 1962. In 1963, while the Civil Rights movement was tearing a nation apart, Cosby appeared again on "The Tonight Show," where his universal tales of childhood and the characters he grew up with played a quiet, important role in mending race relations by highlighting the common experiences audiences of all colors could relate to. His first album, Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow, Right? (1963) earned the newcomer a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Performance, an honor he repeated with I Started Out as a Child (1964) and Why is there Air? (1965).
In 1965, Cosby was cast opposite Robert Culp in "I Spy," a James Bond-styled drama that found the pair playing spies who live undercover as tennis bums. In addition to proving he was a likable and naturally talented actor, the comedian had the added distinction of being the first black performer to star in a regular dramatic series on American television. Much as Sidney Poitier had done in his non-stereotypical film roles, Cosby set a model for black actors by playing parts where his race did not factor into the storyline - he was simply one half of a team of sleuths. Overwhelmingly positive audience and critical response led to three consecutive Emmy Awards as Outstanding Lead in a Dramatic Series. Still a stand-up comedy force, Cosby became a regular guest host on "The Tonight Show," while racking up Grammy Awards for more live recordings in 1968, 1969 and 1970. After "I Spy" came to and end in 1968, Cosby remained on the air as host of the Emmy-winning variety show, "The Bill Cosby Special" (NBC, 1968) and his own sitcom, "The Bill Cosby Show" (NBC, 1969-1971), where he starred as a high school physical education teacher.
Cosby subsequently took a hiatus to resume his own education, earning first a Masters Degree and then a Doctorate in Education from the University of Massachusetts. He became a high-profile advocate of the importance of childhood education; furthering his cause by teaching reading skills in taped segments on "The Electric Company" (PBS, 1971-77) and creating his own half-hour animated show, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" (CBS, 1972-79). Cosby, with total creative control, shaped the series into a showcase for the educational and child-rearing theories developed during his doctoral studies. The warm-hearted show brought to life characters from Cosby's stand-up routine - who were, themselves, characters from his own childhood -where they faced relatable situations like peer pressure and first loves, book-ended by live-action Cosby introducing the week's dilemma and commenting on its resolution. In a similar educational vein, Cosby's LP Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs earned a Grammy for Best Children's album in 1972.
While generally known as a television success, Cosby followed up with three popular features during that time which served as a dignified alternative to the era's "blaxpliotation" offerings. The Sidney Poitier-directed "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974) was a straight-ahead comic caper about a working class guy's night out-gone-awry. The buddy con game "Let's Do It Again" (1975) also paired Cosby with Poitier with great results, however the third film in the trilogy - the heist "A Piece of the Action" (1977) - was panned. After a short-lived attempt at helming a variety show, "Cos" (ABC, 1976), Cosby struck out with the lackluster ambulance comedy "Mother, Jugs and Speed" (1976) and a slapstick teaming with Richard Pryor in Neil Simon's "California Suite" (1978). He maintained his presence in educational television, hosting "Picture Pages" preschool reading segments on "Captain Kangaroo" (CBS, 1955-1984), while his fun, irreverent manner with children made him a perfect pitchman for such family-oriented products as Jell-O, Kodak film and Coca-Cola.
In 1984, Cosby returned to primetime television in a big way as creator and star of the phenomenally successful "The Cosby Show." The show was not only hailed for averting the near-death of the sitcom genre, but for its groundbreaking portrayal of an African- American family that was wholesome, educated, upper-middle class and instantly embraced by audiences of all colors and soci conomic backgrounds. The show's status as the top-rated television program of the 1980s suggested that American audiences had become "color-blind" enough to accept the show's star as a universal father figure. For five straight seasons, the lighthearted, observational domestic humor extracted from the life of obstetrician Cliff Huxtable, his lawyer wife, and their five children ranked number one in the ratings and raked in Emmys, Golden Globe Awards, and People's Choice Awards for favorite comedy series. Star Cosby earned Best Actor statues from the Golden Globes in 1985 and 1986 and producer Cosby enjoyed further success with the spin-off, "A Different World" (NBC, 1987-1993), a college-set sitcom that also enjoyed strong ratings.
Throughout the run of the "Cosby" juggernaut, the comic actor became a bestselling author, first with the humor book Fatherhood (1986), which spent six months at the top of The New York Times bestseller list. The following year, Cosby warned audiences to stay away from his theatrical turkey "Leonard, Part 6" (1987) - a rare request from any actor - and settled back into his position as top TV star and author of the hugely popular follow-up book Love and Marriage (1989). He reunited with director Poitier and contributed story and producer credits for the big screen family outing "Ghost Dad" (1990), however he could not raise the level of the material above that of an extended sitcom. His reputation remained solid with the bestseller Childhood (1991), and following the end of his wildly successful sitcom run, he took supporting roles in moderately popular big screen comedies "The Meteor Man" (1993) and "Jack" (1996). When he returned to series TV with the CBS sitcom "Cosby" (1996-2000), he attempted to stretch, playing an out-of-work curmudgeon who drives his wife (again played by "The Cosby Show" co-star Phylicia Rashad) crazy. After the initial season, however, the character was softened and the addition of a pre-school plot allowed the comic actor to do what he did best -interact with children.
In 1997, America mourned the tragic murder of Cosby's son Ennis - who was senselessly murdered in L.A. during a car-jacking - and learned in the process, just how close the portrait of TV's Theo Huxtable (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) was to that of Ennis. Like the affable but ever-struggling Theo, Ennis had his troubles with school, but once diagnosed as dyslexic, overcame the disability, graduating from Morehouse College and dedicating himself to helping others with similar learning disabilities. Fast on the heels of Cosby's devastating loss, he weathered an extortion attempt on the part of a young woman who claimed she was the product of a liaison between her mother and Cosby. There was no proof of his paternity - though he did acknowledge the affair- and the entertainer provided financial assistance to the young woman, including college tuition. In spite of his personal grief and the whiff of scandal, Cosby refused to cancel personal engagements, telling one audience, "I want you all to know you don't have to forget what happened. But we're supposed to laugh, have a good time. Be together."
Cosby responded by throwing himself into work and sticking close to his life's calling for the benefit of children. He hosted "Kids Say the Darndest Things" (CBS, 1998-2000), based on a popular segment of "Art Linkletter's House Party" (CBS, 1952-1969), and launched the Emmy Award-winning preschool animated series "Little Bill" (Nickelodeon/CBS, 1999-2004), a charming series of moral stories featuring the voices of Phylicia Rashad, Ruby Dee and Cosby. He maintained a steady schedule of public appearances at community centers where he addressed problems in lower income African-American communities. Cosby finally brought the beloved "Fat Albert" to the big screen in 1994. Always in artistic control, he co-wrote the script and served as executive producer, landing J l Zwick to direct and teen comedian Keenan Thompson to star as the jovial fat one. Upon release, the feature made enough box office dollars to avoid being labeled a flop, but not enough to warrant a sequel. Cosby maintained a low profile over the next several years, choosing to focus on speaking engagements and the publication of more books, but his name surfaced in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, the country's first black president. Commentators pointed to Cosby, among others, for his role in destroying negative cultural stereotypes and helping make it possible for Americans to accept the reality of educated professional, African-Americans - with some labeling it the "Cosby Effect."
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Received an honorary degree from Fashion Institute of Technology in May 2000.
His disertation for his doctorate in education focused on the impact on children's values of his popular 1970s cartoon series, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids".
Cosby has recorded more than two dozen albums.
He once explained that the 'E' that started each of his five children's names stood for "excellence."
Inducted to the TV Hall of Fame, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1992.
In 1999, Cosby was approved as a part owner of the New Jersey Nets professional basketball team.
He was honored with the Steven J Ross/Time Warner Award presented by USC's School of Cinema-Television in 2000. He had previously received an honorary degree from the school in 1998.
Cosby's success in the 1960s freed his mother from her life as a domestic: "For the rest of her life, she bowled, cheated at bridge with little old ladies, [and] made the best peach chiffon pie in the world--only she used too many eggs. But do you know what that incredible woman did when she died? In her will she left me $48,000--in case I ever needed something to fall back on." --Bill Cosby quoted in Biography Magazine, June 1998
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