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Like so many later comedians, Bill Cosby referred to himself as a "class clown" at school. William Henry Cosby, born in 1937, has worked for a variety of years, including selling products, storing shelves in a supermarket, and training in a shoe repair shop. He served four years in the US Navy and later entered Temple University as an athletics scholar. (He also played with the full-back on the Temple Football team.)
At Temple, Cosby worked as a bartender to supplement his income. Realizing that he had a knack for making customers laugh while serving them drinks, Cosby decided to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. In 1963 he got his first nationwide acquaintance 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 guy ... right!"
In 1965, Cosby was one of the hottest nightclub comics in America. Enter the writer / actor Robert Culp, who wrote a script in which he is supposed to act as a James Bond secret agent. Culp took 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". Soon Leonard Culp was starring in his new "espionage series" as Spy and "Tennis Bum" Kelly Robinson. Now he set out to find Culp to co-star.
The co-star on "I Spy" was called Alexander Scott and was originally supposed to be an older mentor-type guy - oh, he was supposed to be Caucasian too. But one night after grabbing the Cosby stand-up comedy show, Leonard's fertile spirit perished. He thought Bill Cosby would be perfect in the role of Alexander Scott. Of course the solution these days would be simple: just hire Cosby. However, that was in 1965 and times were a little different. If Cosby was hired, it would be the first time in television history that a black American has starred in a dramatic series.
With courage and foresight as well as a pronounced talent awareness, Leonard threw caution to the wind and discontinued the popular stand-up comic, which at that time had never acted professionally in his life. "I Spy" premiered on September 15, 1965 and 28-year-old Cosby behaved like the proverbial fish in the 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 resisted the crude "humor" and insisted that racial references would never be made on the show again; for the rest of the show, that's exactly what happened. Both agreed that "our statement is not a statement," Culp later recalled.
For its debut season 1965/66, "I Spy" was a hit and was rated in the "Top 20" of the most popular shows in the coveted Nielsen ratings. It wasn't all smooth as one might expect. Some southern affiliates declined to air the series because an "African-American actor" was shown on the same level as a white actor. Cosby also received the seemingly compelling mounds of hate mail and death threats for the era.
With these cruel reservations aside, "I Spy" established itself as a very creative and popular show that is loved by millions of loyal fans. For those who haven't seen the show before and were acting as two undercover agents, Kelly Robinson's cover was a tennis player while Alexander Scott was his coach / coach. Cosby's character wasn't just Culp's submissiveness, Cosby's "Scotty" was portrayed as the smarter of the two, a Rhodes Scholar who was fluent in several languages. Culps "Kelly" was a "tennis bum", a drinker and womanizer who had less discipline than the multi-level "Scotty". In addition, the two were presented as equivalent.
Cosby's character reflected real life and never smoked or drank. Cosby added more autobiographical accents to “Scotty” - like Cosby, the character was born and raised in Philadelphia and went to Temple University (Cosby is worn in a Temple sweatshirt in several episodes.)
For his role in "I Spy", Cosby won three consecutive Emmy Awards for "Outstanding Leading Actor in a Drama Series" over three seasons of "I Spy's" (hitting his co-star every year!) honored with the Golden Globe Award as "Best Dramatic Series".
Finally, in 1968, after three seasons (82 episodes), "I Spy" was canceled, but not before Bill Cosby did something a black American had never done before, he starred in a dramatic television series.
- Ethel Waters in Beulah was the first African American to be featured in any television series. It ran on television from 1950 to 1954 (previously it was on the radio from 1945).
- Nichelle Nichols soon became another star on a major television show despite almost leaving the show. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced Nichols (who later worked for NASA, by the way) to continue the role of Uhura after the first season of Star Trek. Nichols said he shouldn't leave the show because not only did she play a black person as the main character on television, but also a character who didn't match the stereotypical black person of the day that is usually portrayed. Rather, Uhura was portrayed as an intelligent member of the crew and was on an equal footing with the others around them.
- This appears to have had the intended effect. Whoopi Goldberg once said, when she first saw Uhura on TV, she said, “Momma! There's a black lady on TV and she's not a housekeeper! “Because of this, Goldberg became a huge Star Trek fan, and later went so hard to find a role on next generation Star Trek, despite the disbelief of the producers who wanted her on the show.
- Astronaut Ronald McNair, the second black man in space (who also died in the Challenger explosion), was inspired to become an astronaut because of the character of Uhura. McNair's brother said:
Now Star Trek was showing the future where black and white worked together. I only thought of it as science fiction because that wasn't really going to happen. “But Ronald saw it as a possibility of science. It came at a time when there was Neil Armstrong and all these guys; What was a South Carolina boy of color who wore glasses and never flew an airplane like - how did he become an astronaut? But Ron was one who didn't accept social norms as his norm, you know? That was for other people. And he had to be on board his own Starship Enterprise. "
- In an episode of "I Spy", Scotty is tortured by enemy spies and asked for his name, to which he replies: "Fat Albert". Four years after completing "I Spy", Cosby was supposed to create the show "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids".
- The witty banter between Culp and Cosby (often completely adlibed) soon became the show's trademark. Among the influential jewels, Culp and Cosby's ad-libbing brought the word “wonderful” into 1960s American pop culture. (Cosby would later release a comedy album called "Wonderfulness".)
- Another unique feature of "I Spy" was the locations. Simulating the 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, to the best of my knowledge, "I Spy" is the only 1960s television series that filmed an episode on location in Vietnam.)
- Robert Culp and Bill Cosby would remain close friends until Culp's death in 2010.
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