His Life and Times
By Mark Whitaker
Simon & Schuster. 532 pp. $29.99
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Reviewed by David Hiltbrand
It's said that people form a special kinship with TV stars because enjoying them in our homes imbues the performers with a familial comfort level.
So it is with Bill Cosby, a true TV giant. But what makes him unique is that he can, seemingly without effort, cast that same spell of intimacy in any medium - on stage, on page, on record, even in commercials.
Philadelphia's favorite son is arguably America's most beloved entertainer. Which makes him an intriguing subject for a biography. As dynamically disarming as Cosby is before an audience, he has also been fiercely protective of his private life throughout his long career.
In this sweeping biography, Mark Whitaker approaches that dichotomy - a man at once singularly accessible and carefully guarded - with comprehensive reportage and lilting prose.
Cosby is not a salacious tell-all. It documents Cosby's accomplishments and his scandals with a detailed detachment. Whitaker crafts a thorough representation without indulging much in analysis or interpretation.
The best part of the book may be Whitaker's vivid evocation of Cosby's youth, growing up in the Richard Allen public housing projects near Girard Avenue with a largely absent father who had a drinking problem.
By high school, Cosby was a gifted mimic, class clown, and confirmed TV addict, but for all his native smarts, he was not much of a student. After the family moved to Germantown, he dropped out of high school, having already been held back twice, and enlisted in the Navy without informing his mother.
In 1960, he enrolled at Temple as a 23-year-old freshman. His summer job as a rising junior was to perform 20-minute comedy sets between the folksinger acts at the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.
Almost from the time he picked up a microphone, he was formulating his distinctive syncopated storytelling style and building his classic career-making routine on Noah and the Lord. ("Riiiight . . . What's a cubit?")
Whitaker, the former editor at Newsweek, presents Cosby as an instinctual performer, spontaneous and observant, but always precisely attuned to his audience.
It's clear that the author interviewed dozens of people who knew Cosby at various stages of his life. The result is a panoply of very specific anecdotes. The problem is that Whitaker falls in love with his reporting. Just because an incident is sourced doesn't necessarily make it interesting or worthy of inclusion.
As was often the case for comedians, Cosby's career snowballed after his first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1963. Soon afterward, he was being cast opposite Robert Culp in the CBS espionage drama I Spy, and hailed in Variety as "Television's Jackie Robinson."
If ever there was a reason to believe in the magical magnetism of Cosby, it would be the sensational and immediate popularity he enjoyed as tennis trainer/spy Alexander Scott in the globe-trotting series.
In his first experience as an actor, Cosby won Emmys over such renowned pros as Richard Crenna, David Janssen, Ben Gazzara, Martin Landau, and Raymond Burr. Not only was he the first African American to win for lead actor in a drama, but until recently, he was the only actor ever to win it in three consecutive years. (Bryan Cranston accomplished the three-peat for Breaking Bad.)
His first sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, lasted only two seasons (in part because the star fought stubbornly against the use of a laugh track), but the cartoon characters he created at this time based on his friendships in the Richard Allen Homes would run for more than a decade as Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids.
Cosby isn't as interesting as it moves into the 1980s, primarily because the spotlight was focused so brightly and fixedly on the entertainer by this time that the details of his life grow more familiar. Cosby was enjoying unprecedented success as a commercial spokesperson for Jell-O, Coca-Cola, E.F. Hutton, Kodak, and other products, and his landmark sitcom was in the offing.
Whitaker covers the darker chapters in Cosby's life, like his decade-long estrangement from his daughter Erinn and the murder of his son Ennis, with notable restraint. But he has a habit of dropping in discordant, unexplored character notes out of the blue, as in: "To others, the interview provided an unsettling glimpse at the judgmental, sometimes pitiless side of Cosby's personality." The star's womanizing is also referenced only elliptically.
Whitaker does take on Cosby's radical views on race. The comedian's insistence on self-reliance and self-determination has always struck some members of the African American community as misplaced. But it is a philosophy firmly rooted in his experience. Cosby saw his own family go from the outhouse to the penthouse in three generations.
While not probing, this biography is exhaustive and entertaining. The problem is that Cosby doesn't seem willing to sit still for his definitive portrait. At 77, he maintains a busy schedule of comedy concerts, and it was recently announced that he's negotiating with NBC to star in a new sitcom for 2015.
You go on, Bill. We can wait for Vol. II of your extarordinary Life and Times.