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Cosby, Bill (1937-- )

Bill Cosby and Jesse Jackson
Bill Cosby and Jesse Jackson
Image Ownership: Public Domain
William Henry Cosby, Jr., one of America's most influential and successful entertainers, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on July 12, 1937 to William Henry, a US Navy cook, and Anna Pearl Cosby, a maid.  The family struggled financially, and a move into Philadelphia's crime-ridden Richard Allen housing project provided memorable material for Cosby's later comedic career.  Cosby became captain of his high school's track and football teams and was accepted into a program for gifted students.

Despite his academic and athletic potential, Cosby dropped out of school to join the US Navy, serving four years and earning his high school equivalency in 1960.  A year later, he was awarded a scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia.  To supplement his income, Cosby tended bar and gained a customer following with his wit.  He eventually quit school in pursuit of a stand-up comedy career.   During the next two years, he regularly performed at the popular Gas Light Café in New York City's Greenwich Village.  His successful run there propelled him into the national spotlight, and at the age of 26, Cosby made his triumphant television debut on The Tonight Show, a career break coveted by aspiring comedians. 

In 1965, Cosby broke barriers when he became the first African American to star in a weekly dramatic television series with his role as a government agent on I Spy, an action-adventure series that ran for three seasons and earned Cosby three Emmy awards.  Cosby expanded his television work with producing and directing opportunities, and starred in a number of feature films. During the 1970s, he made regular appearances on the educational children's series The Electric Company and Sesame Street, introducing the performer to a vast new audience.  That work led to his critically-acclaimed cartoon series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-1984), and influenced his return to college to earn a BA from Temple University (1970), and MA (1972) and EdD (1976) degrees from the University of Massachusetts

Over the years, Cosby has donated millions of dollars to support educational opportunities for African Americans.  He incorporated his education and parenting knowledge as the father of five children into his entertainment projects and increasingly in his writing, including The Cosby Show (1984-1992), which he created and starred in.  The series was considered groundbreaking in its portrayal of an intelligent, affluent and successful African American family.  It ranks as one of the most popular series in American television history.   In 1986, Cosby became a best-selling author with the publication of his book, Fatherhood.  He would go on to publish ten other books.

His role as a social critic was publicly debated in 2004 after Cosby spoke at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909--  ) event commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools.   Known as Cosby's "Pound Cake Speech", he challenged the black community to become more accountable and responsible for the welfare of its children, evoking both praise and criticism from black activists for his honesty.  It led to a multi-year lecture tour and a best-selling book co-authored with Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint (1934--  ), Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors (2007).

Cosby and his wife Camille Hanks Cosby (1945--  ), married since 1964, are avid collectors of African American art. The couple maintains homes in New York, Massachusetts, and California.  Their family endured tragedy in 1997 when the youngest of their five children, Ennis, was shot to death in Los Angeles, California while changing a flat tire on the freeway.  After his death, the Cosbys established a foundation in their son's name to support programs for students with learning disabilities.

Sources:

http://entertainer.billcosby.com/biography/images/biography/bill_cosby_biography.pdf; Henry Louis Gates, African American Lives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Henry Louis Gates, African American National Biography, Vol. 2, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Linda K. Fuller, The Cosby Show: Audiences, Impact, and Implications (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992)

Contributor:

Berea College

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