From the beginning of an interview with legendary comedian, actor, author and Jello-O pitchman Bill Cosby, it's clear he'll be steering the conversation.
The 74-year-old icon starts in Cliff Huxtable mode, hamming it up as he answers the phone. “Hellooooooooo! Helloooooooo!” He's in frigid Cleveland and wants to talk about the weather for a few minutes before the interview gets properly started (a funnier topic than usual since it's the Coz.) Only a few questions get asked during an engaging, hour-long chat that covers roughly seven decades of his life. Occasionally he interrupts tangents he suspects won't move tickets to his upcoming Feb. 10 appearance at the University of Puget Sound's Memorial Fieldhouse in a way that recalls Hilton Lucas, the curmudgeonly protagonist from his late '90s sitcom “Cosby.”
“Go ahead,” he interjects, gruffly. “But you better make this funny so people say, 'Gee whiz! I wanna see him.''”
Between characteristic flashes of quirkiness he provides insight into his early career, his role as an African-American trailblazer and how his lack of a paternal role model may have helped mold him into America's Dad.
TW: I grew up watching “The Cosby Show” and “Fat Albert.” Loved all that stuff, but I've got a bone to pick. You gave my dad some of his favorite catch phrases, starting with “I brought you into this world, I'll take you out.”
BC: But I didn't give him the one that really made me feel bad.
TW: What's that?
BC: As my father said, “I brought you into this world, I'll take you out.” Now, that I could deal with. … But then he added, “I'll make another one that looks just like you.” Now, that got me. That got rid of anything that I thought I was worthy of.
TW: Well, at least my dad didn't use that half of it.
BC: No, because I didn't give it to him. So you should put the meat back on that bone for that part.
TW: So, during your career you've done a number of kid-oriented projects, everything from “Electric Company” to “Fat Albert” and “Little Bill.” Why was that important to you?
BC: The reason, mon frere, is my life. … My mother struggled because (his father) was there but in and out, and she loved him. And it wasn't good.
Many times people who have never met their father ... take this in a very hard way, and low self-esteem is one of the things that is a reaction because they continue to wonder if there is something really wrong with them or why they had a person that just rejected them. … In my case, the man's behavior was so poor … that eventually I came to believe that it was better if he did not show up at all.
TW: I think I've seen in interviews where you mention that you and your brother ran him off at some point.
BC: Oh yes! Oh yes. So, anyway, I didn't wake up (until) I had a sixth-grade teacher – a white woman, orthodox Russian – who went to the same school as my mother. I didn't find out until I was 42 years old that the two of them talked at this elementary school. And my mother told her to make sure to “get him” – him being me. And she did. And for the first time since, maybe, second grade I had to do my work. I had to turn things in. And I was told this is not good enough, and I began to soar.
(Years later) I left Temple University, went into show business. But I still had the idea of the kind of image I wanted to present and give to kids and boys to (help them) become fathers to raise their families properly – but mostly to have a choice about one's life in a job or a career.
TW: You've mentioned early on, when you were first getting started, you didn't have African-American role models to look at for what you did.
BC: In those days … coming into the Civil Right Movement, it was still media and people looking at us and asking what we wanted. “What is it you people want?” We were not people who were looked at as similar. … The way to racism is to take away the similarity; the fact that we are human beings, and we may be different in terms of this word that is so misused now – culture.
(In 1962) Dick Gregory is funny, so Dick is making big headlines. And they're writing (about) me because I'm the second one coming. That's very odd. In the whole of the New York Times and (Northeastern papers) I am the second one of all the “Negro male comedians.” That's what show biz is looking like.
I have decided I am not going to work like Dick; I'm not going to do “back of the bus” and “get out of the cotton field,” that kind of thing, although I'd written some powerful pieces that were absolutely wonderful. Why have two guys, and the only two guys of their race, doing the same material?
Which, by the way, when you're looking at Richard Pryor and his career, Richard says the same thing. Richard is copying me and doing what I'm doing, and then realizes, “Why have two of the same?”
TW: Through what you've done, you've been able to change perceptions through everything from “I-Spy” to “The Cosby Show.” I wonder what your thoughts were on the kinds of stereotypes you helped break through.
BC: When I entered (Hollywood) this was huge because “I Spy” was major, major TW. The question would come up: “Do you feel that you have the weight of your race on your shoulders?” Now that truly is a wonderful question to ask, but they never put any depth into it. In other words, if you know that much about your United States of America do some research and write an article about it as opposed to waiting until somebody gets the offer and then to ask them how they feel?
I knew that what I wanted to do was put a fellow on that screen, in character, who along with … the fact that he was a Rhodes Scholar, the fact that he spoke six languages - I wanted to make him on TV appear to be the antithesis of the stereotype that would go with a fellow that was that intellectual. And so I brought Alexander Scott to talk, walk, and know things and have a sense of humor.
Then (co-star) Bob Culp's character did the same thing, and it was wonderful because we became two guys that people really liked.
TW: Of all the different things you've gotten to do over the years, what is your most fun project? And is there anything you look back and maybe wish you hadn't done?
BC: Well, the obvious (fun thing) is the writing and the performing. (He considers.) There were some writers I had to deal with on my last sitcom that I wish I had just taken and thrown them off the set forever. And then, No. 2 was when I made (1987 comedy) “Leonard Part 6.”
TW: I thought that might come up.
BC: There was an executive or a producer on the set. (He) said to me in certain ways this is my movie and you will do what I will tell you to do. … When I believe in something I know, I would rather it be what I believe in rather than people who don't understand what I want done, and they beginning to tweak it and do things I don't believe in.
The good news is somewhere along the line (it) had become some sort of cult hit. I think the next time that it happened also was with “Fat Albert” (the live-action movie.) There are just certain things there that I would not have done.
Check Tacoma Weekly’s Daily Mashup blog, http://www.tacomaweekly.com/dailymashup, for outtakes from our Bill Cosby interview.
Bill Cosby in concert
7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10
UPS Fieldhouse, North 11th and Union, Tacoma
$25 to $32.88