The Other 'Cosby' Show, Now on DVD

Between I Spy and The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby played coach Chet Kincaid... and made sure many other black actors got TV time. Elvis Mitchell and Scott Simon reflect on The Bill Cosby Show, now on DVD.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BILL COSBY SHOW INTRO)

SIMON: Next week a DVD of The Bill Cosby Show is being released for home viewing. Now this is not Cosby or The Cosby Show or even The New Bill Cosby Show. The series was simply called The Bill Cosby Show. It ran from 1969 to 1971.

Bill Cosby played Chet Kincaid, a physical education teacher at a Los Angeles high school, a funny, decent man that was well respected in his profession and community. Well, it is Bill Cosby, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BILL COSBY SHOW)

COSBY: (As Chet Kincaid) Well, I just like movies that take place in the daytime.

SIMON: (As character) Well, I thought it was romantic.

COSBY: (As Chet Kincaid) Well, the thing just didn't tell a story.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) It did. It was a love story.

COSBY: (As Chet Kincaid) How can you have a love story between six people, and the leading man is 15 years old? Now as far as I'm concerned, his mother shouldn't even let him see a movie like that, let alone act in it.

SIMON: Now, what makes The Bill Cosby Show special is that it captures Mr. Cosby in an earlier form of mastery. At a time where there were precious few Black actors on television, Bill Cosby was considered the height of cool to both black and white Americans.

Our entertainment commentator, Elvis Mitchell, joins us from New York. Elvis, thanks very much for being with us.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Hey, hey, hey.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, I was wondering how you were going to chime in. I really was. This came after Bill Cosby had been such a success in I Spy, and a growing interest that he had in movies. Help us set this up in the development of his career.

MITCHELL: Well, this comes at a really interesting phase in his career. Because as you mentioned, I Spy had just been cancelled after a great three-year run and established Cosby as somebody who came out of nowhere, who I think started the style. It made him one of the most influential actors of the last 40 years.

I happened to be watching a bunch of I Spy episodes on DVD. What you can see from the early days of the show, that Robert Culp, who played his partner - they were CIA agents bouncing around the world - was kind of a rigid sort of conventional leading man type with a bit of a smirk. And as the show went on you could see him lifting from Cosby. His walk changed, the way he talked changed, he took a much jazzier approach to acting. But he lifted directly from Cosby, who was a real natural in front of the camera.

SIMON: Bill Cosby in this series, in particular, would make a point of working in talents that had been overlooked. Great comic talents that in a sense were kept from America when American comedy was arguably as segregated as American baseball for all those years.

SIMON: Moms Mabley and Mantan Moreland.

MITCHELL: Yeah. In this episode where they play his aunt and uncle, a bickering couple, Mantan Moreland had kind of fallen into disrepute because he had done a bunch of movies where he basically played sort of a stereotypical figure.

SIMON: He was - he played Charlie Chan's chauffeur, right?

MITCHELL: Yes he did, and did such wide-eyed takes of fear and running off the set that he basically had been humiliated off the screen. He was thought as the Old Guard. And the comedian Moms Mabley, who was not that well known to white audiences because she was mostly heard on record, and did some fairly raunchy routines on record, but was not that well known to the mainstream. And put them in an episode of the show together.

SIMON: Well, let's hear a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BILL COSBY SHOW)

MOMS MABLEY: (As Aunt Edna) All the boys was in line for me, and my daddy had to pick you. J.J. Johnson was crazy about me. And honey, when he kissed me, my big toe shoot straight up in the air, just like that.

MANTAN MORELAND: (As Uncle Dewey): Woman, why don't you talk with some sense. Talking about kissing.

MABLEY: (As Aunt Edna) I may be old, but my lips is in the Atomic Age.

MORELAND: (As Uncle Dewey) Woman, I used to stay home from work just to keep from kissing you goodbye.

COSBY: Maybe - maybe you're hungry.

SIMON: Oh, that's hilarious. You know, among other things, to hear that now you can't help but observe that writers don't let the back and forth go on that long anymore as a rule.

MITCHELL: He really was presenting, making this a showcase for these people who were basically unknown to most Americans at that time, certainly unknown to most fans of Bill Cosby, and showing a real sense of engagement in black cultural history. And when he ended up doing the show we now think of being The Cosby Show, initially when he did this show, he wanted to also play a working man. He wanted to play a garbage collector because he still thought that something that was missing from the conversation in American culture was seeing the American black working class leading everyday lives.

I guess we think of him now as being just this scold who is telling people what to do. But I wish people would just look up this show just to see a guy who's so much in his prime as a physical specimen, as an actor, as a comedian, that the pure pleasure in performance just radiates in everything that he does.

SIMON: Elvis Mitchell, our entertainment commentator here on WEEKEND EDITION. He's also the host of KCRW's The Treatment.

Elvis, thanks so much for bringing this to our attention.

MITCHELL: Hey, hey, hey, Scott, take it easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Who can I impersonate in return?

MITCHELL: You're doing Robert Culp right now.

SIMON: I am doing...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You know, you're right. I am your Robert Culp. You have me to a tee. That's it. Hey, boss. Hey, Scottie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I'm your Robert Culp.

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