African-American entertainer Bill Cosby, in his own words, "started out as a child," the son of an eight-dollars-a-day maid and an absentee father. A product of grinding poverty, Cosby escaped his rundown Philadelphia neighborhood by dropping out of high school and joining the navy. He earned his diploma via correspondence course, then earned a football scholarship to Temple University. Working nights as a bartender, Cosby discovered he had the ability to make people laugh, so he temporarily shelved his plans to become an athletics teacher and set out to become a nightclub comedian. Most black comics of the era used the race issue in their act; this didn't quite work for Cosby, but relating humorous reminiscences about himself and his childhood buddies worked beautifully. After numerous TV guest shots and several top-selling, Grammy Award-winning record albums, Cosby was signed by producer Sheldon Leonard to co-star with Robert Culp in a weekly TV espionage series, I Spy. This was an era of acute racial tension; many NBC executives were wary about a black leading man, and quite a few Southern affiliates threatened not to run the show, but Leonard, a street scrapper from way back, refused to back down. I Spy was a hit, earning Cosby an Emmy. As the series progressed, the camaraderie between Cosby and Culp deepened, and by the end of the series, Culp was talking and ad-libbing in the same low-key, offbeat cadence that Cosby had adopted for his club appearances! After I Spy, Cosby signed a sweetheart deal with NBC, which guaranteed him a two-year run on his next program, whether the ratings were good or not. The Bill Cosby Show cast the star as high school coach Chet Kincaid, and was unusual for the time in that it was a sitcom minus a laughtrack. At times it was a sitcom minus laughs as well, but NBC had made its promise, and Cosby did his best. In the '70s he teamed with actor/director Sidney Poitier to make a trio of popular crime/comedy features: Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action. Viewers who think of Cosby in terms of one success after another have forgotten such failed 1970s TV projects as The New Bill Cosby Show and Cos. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there was The Cosby Show, the eight-season wonder that single-handedly rescued the sitcom format from oblivion in 1984 and enabled the woebegone NBC network to crack the Number One slot in the ratings week after week. And there were guest spots on the award-winning children's show The Electric Company and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1969-84) a superlative Saturday morning cartoon show supervised by Cosby that managed to be what is now called "prosocial" without losing any of the fun. He has also been the long-time commercial spokesman for Jell-O. In the fall of 1996 Cosby returned to prime time TV with yet another The Cosby Show sitcom, again set in New York City and co-starring Phylicia Rashad. Although The Cosby Show became made him arguably the most famous person in the country, he could not capitalize that rush of fame into a film career choosing to make a series of box office bombs including Leonard Part 6 and Ghost Dad. He created yet another TV show, The Cosby Mysteries, and shepherded a successful animated chilsdren's series, Little Bill, to screens in 2001. He appeared in the big-screen version of Fat Albert in 2004.
~ Hal Erickson, Rovi