Journalist Mark Whitaker, author of the new book Cosby: His Life and Times, talks with The Root Editor-in-Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a wide-ranging interview. Whitaker says comedian Bill Cosby became an accidental role model for him at a critical point in his childhood after his father left his family. He recalls embarking on a subconscious search for a black male role model when he stumbled upon a Cosby comedy album.
“All of a sudden, here I am with this comedy album with this handsome black man, just two years younger than my father, on the cover, telling me these hilarious stories,” he tells Gates. “[I don’t think I processed it this way at the time], but he brought much-needed laughter into my life at a sad time.”
The trajectory of Cosby’s career inspired and informed important landmarks in Whitaker’s life.
“I was really into Bill Cosby as a kid,” he said. “Then, in the ’70s, I remember his first sitcom [The Bill Cosby Show]. I watched Fat Albert. Then The Cosby Show comes on NBC in 1984, just as it was in December 1984 that I proposed to my wife.”
In Part 1 of his interview with The Root, Whitaker reflects on the personal side of the comedian, Cosby’s triumphs and tragedies.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Why Bill Cosby, and what intrigued you about his story?
Mark Whitaker: Obviously I knew that there was a much more complicated figure behind the genial, sweater-wearing America’s dad. I thought nobody had really explored that in great depth, and I thought somebody should. Since nobody had done [it], I thought I would.
HLG: He [Cosby] was a bright kid, always funny, and you often hear the great comedians are using humor to mask pain. Was there pain in his childhood?
MW: Yeah, he had a very difficult relationship with his father. His father was a drinker. When Cosby was born, he was working in a factory as a welder, but also doing other odd jobs to support the family. They were living in a little row house in Germantown [in northwest Philadelphia], a poor but mixed neighborhood. But as his drinking increased, he wasn’t doing as much work, not doing the part-time jobs. They fell on hard times and moved into a real hovel. This was about when Cosby was 3 or 4.
He witnessed a lot of fighting between his parents, his father coming home drunk [and] arguments over money over drinking. He also had a younger brother who was a little under two years younger, who was very sickly. So there was just a lot of tension in the household. His mother worked as a domestic, so she often wasn’t around …
When Cosby was 6 or 7, housing projects were just starting; they moved into the Richard Allen Homes. And his father went into the Navy. I think he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of being a parent.
For a lot of black folks when [the Richard Allen Homes] opened, he found the world of friends that, first of all, brought him out, and he kind of discovered this talent for making people laugh. But [it] also started to provide the relationships that he would later turn into his comedy, with all those characters who are sort of either directly or loosely based on his friends in the projects.
HLG: Well, in his early years, people described Cosby as a very easygoing guy, natural, telling stories. You spent a lot of time with him in preparation for this book. Would you call him an easygoing, happy man?
MW: He was very responsive, very nice and generous with his time. Interacting with other people, he’s very playful and so forth. I know from my research, and it’s reflected in the book, that he has—he’s capable of getting very angry; he can be very tough in business situations and other situations. He holds a grudge against people who he thinks have wronged him in one way or another.
But I didn’t see any of that. He was always very nice. There’s a number of other people who worked with him over the years [who] made the same point, but I saw it, too—for a big, big star, he is very low maintenance. He travels alone, despite his vision problems.
HLG: His son, Ennis, was shot and killed in a tragic incident in California in 1997—his only son, a son he had dreamed about, waited for after having two daughters. How do you think Ennis’ death affected, and changed inevitably, his life?
MW: Well, it had a profound effect on him. And as you say, they were very, very close. He always wanted a son. He would joke about it before Ennis was born. When his wife, Camille, first got pregnant, and then when his first two daughters, Erika and Erinn, were born, he actually joked about it in his comedy routine, about wanting a son.
And they had a very close relationship, but also a little bit fraught, because Ennis had learning problems. He was an incredibly sweet kid and grew up to be very handsome and charming as well. But throughout his early school years, elementary, high school, into college, he struggled academically, which was a great source of frustration to Cosby, whose greatest cause in life has been education. And he got tutors for him and would call him to check in on how he was doing—after exams. When finally, after his freshman year at—I think he was in his sophomore year at Morehouse—and still barely passing his courses, one of his classmates asked if he had ever been tested for dyslexia.
As it happened … there was a … school that specialized in learning disability—not far from where the Cosbys lived, their main residence, which is in northwest Massachusetts, across the border of Vermont—called Landmark College. And so, over the summer, Ennis went to Landmark; he got tested. Indeed, he had dyslexia. He then worked—took courses there to … help folks with dyslexia and other learning disabilities sort of manage it and develop study skills and so forth. And when he came back to Morehouse, his grades started to improve. He ended up graduating on the dean’s list and deciding to then go to Columbia Teachers College to become a specialist in learning disabilities.
[Whitaker explains that during a break from school, Ennis Cosby was killed on the side of a California highway when he pulled over to change a tire.]
I think it had just a profound—obviously, losing any child is one of the worst things that can happen to anybody. For Cosby to lose Ennis, the apple of his eye, completely changed his life. But he dealt with it in a variety of ways. From the very start, just when he was talking to the police who were briefing him on what had happened and talking to the chief of police, Willie Williams; when he called later that week, they spent a lot of time talking about other parents with lost children. And these police officers sort of had a feeling that he was kind of already trying to somehow cope with his own loss by putting it, relating it, to other people and tragedies that they had suffered. Then at the burial he—they buried Ennis at their estate in Massachusetts. And I re-create the scene in the book, as you know.
Ten days after Ennis was shot, [Cosby] had a standup gig booked in Florida, and his wife, Camille, didn’t want him to go, thought he was just too fragile. But he insisted on it, and so she asked [his friend psychiatrist] Alvin Poussaint if he and his wife would go with him just to make sure he was OK. And Poussaint said [in an interview], “I realize that he just needed to go back to work, that was how he was going to deal with it.”
So he went back to performing, he went back to performing on his sitcom. It happened to be that that year they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of Jell-O, and he had been—and he was going to be—a big part of that, but after Ennis was killed, the people at Jell-O figured, “Well, we’re just gonna have to cancel all that.” But he wanted to do that, he wanted to do the Playboy Jazz Festival, even though George Wein assumed that he wouldn’t. But the things—other things—changed, though.
The Cosbys had been very, very social. They entertained a lot in New York. They had big parties, and he would throw a big party for Camille for her birthday every year. They would have their friends to [their home] for the holidays. And a lot of that stopped. He kept in touch with his friends, but more by phone now, so they became much more private. And then he also developed this ritual—which continues to this day—which Ennis, when he was in high school at this Quaker school, had developed a kind of, his own signature greeting, which was “Hello, friend.” In Quakerism, the early Quakers kind of referred to them as “friend” …
MW: So whenever Ennis would see somebody, he would say, “Hello, friend.” Anyway, so [at] the first concert that Cosby gave, 10 days after Ennis died, he had a sweatshirt made up with “Hello, Friend” on it, and every performance he’s given since then he either has—he’s either wearing a sweatshirt with “Hello, Friend” on it, or he has one draped over his chair, on the back of his chair, when he’s performing.
In part 2, Whitaker discusses Bill Cosby's perspective on racial injustice and his criticism of some black youths.