Bill Cosby says he has no problem leaving The Cosby Show after eight years as founder, creator, shaper, promoter, protector, defender, and check-depositing beneficiary of the biggest sitcom hit on American television in the past 20 years. He’s ready to go, he announces to anyone who asks, and so is the rest of the cast. He has told every story he wanted to tell about Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable and their five children at 10 Stigwood Avenue, Brooklyn Heights, New York. He has pulled in some of the highest ratings ever recorded for a sitcom. He more or less single-handedly rescued NBC from third place in 1984 and punted it into first for six years. He’s 54 years old and a best- selling author and a jumbo-fee stand-up comedian and a zillionaire, and he sees no reason to stick around the Huxtable household while viewer interest flags and ratings drop and people start to say, ”Oh, that tired old thing.”
Bill Cosby does, however, have a problem. It nags him in his last week of taping the last episode ever of The Cosby Show at the Kaufman Astoria studios in the shadow of the Manhattan skyline — a special hour-long episode airing April 30. And that problem is how to leave the stage for the very last time.
So, on a windy early April afternoon two days before that final final final scene will be taped in front of an audience of about 300 people, Bill Cosby halts rehearsal. This isn’t new; in eight years, Cosby has probably interrupted rehearsal a thousand times to improvise, or suggest, or question. In fact, Cosby often likes to leave line readings loose until taping day — to encourage more spontaneity. He stares into space with that deadpan fixed-on- the-horizon look he uses to charm audiences and sell Jell-O and make children giggle. And he wonders:
As Heathcliff Huxtable, Brooklyn’s most popular obstetrician, should he maybe waltz around the living room with his wife, Clair (Brooklyn’s calmest attorney), now that his only son, Theo, has just graduated from college and 13-year-old Rudy is the only one of the five kids still living at home? Should Cliff and Clair maybe waltz out the front door, now that Cliff (Brooklyn’s most bullheadedly inept do-it-yourselfer) has finally — finally — fixed the front doorbell so that the damn thing doesn’t clang or short out or muffle or give callers a shock? Should the two of them collapse on the couch, together and happily alone at last?
Or should Bill Cosby maybe mark the event — the end of an era! — by breaking that so-called fourth wall between performer and audience, acknowledging in some way the 82 million viewers that, at its height, made The Cosby Show the No. 1 television show for four years running?
”Attitude-wise, we aren’t going to turn out the light. The attitude going in was, the Huxtable family always existed. Eight years ago, they lifted their shade and let us look in. Now, after eight years, they’re just not gonna lift the shade. They’re gonna go on.”
— Writer-Producer Gordon Gartrelle
Maybe he should just light up the cigar he has been fondling all morning. Prop master Jack Gelbart, guardian of Cosby’s lighter, tosses the thing to his boss. Cosby works on his Cuban cigar, then tosses the lighter back to Gelbart for safekeeping. He plops down on the Huxtable couch, dressed in sweatpants, with a Miles College sweatshirt stretched across his decidedly middle-aged midsection and a baseball cap covering unmistakably graying hair.
“Hey, Jay!” he hollers to Jay Sandrich. “Jay, you are not the director I wanted for this show!” Sandrich laughs, because he’s the perfect director for this show, the top-of-the-line field marshal (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Soap) who directed the very first episode and, in fact, every episode of the first two seasons (and most of the third). And while the two banter as if Friday were not the very last taping ever, 21-year-old Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who plays Theo, lopes from Huxtable room to room aiming his palm-size video recorder at colleagues (Warner is a part-time film student at New York University in real life). Keshia Knight Pulliam, 13, who plays Rudy, does her homework at the Huxtable kitchen table. Tempestt Bledsoe, now 18, disappears into her own dressing room, moody as Vanessa, the daughter she plays. Thirty- four-year-old Sabrina LeBeauf, who, as the oldest Huxtable child, Sondra, was off at college by the time the series began, chats with Clarice Taylor, who plays Cliff’s mother, Anna. Phylicia Rashad, who plays wife Clair, fingers her prayer beads; 6-year-old Raven-Symone, who plays step-granddaughter Olivia, pirouettes around the living room looking for an audience. (She may have one soon; there’s a pint-size pilot in the works for her.)
The decision is made: The doorbell will finally chime properly and the fourth wall will be broken. This is how The Cosby Show goes out: with a dingdong that turns into a jazzy send-off to the music of Miles Davis. Rehearsal resumes.
“The ending of the show will probably not affect me for a couple of months. Honestly, I’ll wake up one morning and say, ‘Yo! This thing is over!'”
— Malcom-Jamal Warner
This, too, is how The Cosby Show ends: a tepid 20th in the season’s overall ratings. The show that changed forever the way black families are portrayed on television, the show that paved the way for a rainbow of African-American sensibilities on TV from In Living Color to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is getting razzed these days by The Simpsons, which took Cosby characteristics (understanding, respect, family interaction, striving for excellence) and turned them on their heads (belching, insulting, napping, underachieving; in one episode a drowsing Homer nodded off with a copy of Cosby’s best-seller Fatherhood splayed on his stomach). The Cosby Show ends minus second-eldest daughter Denise (Lisa Bonet, 24, who left the show in 1987, but who is written into the hour-long farewell episode in a phone call from Singapore, during which she announces that she’s pregnant). But the family has gained Pam (Erika Alexander), the Huxtables’ inner-city relation, and Olivia (Raven-Symone), Denise’s precocious 5-year-old stepdaughter.
In all, the series ends a little wistful and soft of punch, these happy few upper-middle-class Huxtables, maligned by addled critics for being too jolly and well adjusted for any family, maligned by addled armchair sociologists for being too prosperous for a realistic black family, and lost amid the noisier, cruder TV families of the ’90s, from The Simpsons to Married…With Children and even Family Matters.
This is what Bill Cosby thinks: “I never could accept how [journalists] could get into the messages that come from films and some TV shows and they never could find any depth with what was going on in the Huxtable house. I find that very offensive.”
Bill Cosby leaves The Cosby Show without looking back. He’s out the door; his private Cessna is waiting to take him anywhere he wants to go. He’s developing a series — no airdate yet — for Malcolm-Jamal Warner, about a graduate student who works at a community center. And he’s developing a remake of the classic 1950s Groucho Marx TV show You Bet Your Life, a quiz-and-audience- participation series that premieres in syndication in September. After the failure of his last two feature-length comedies, Ghost Dad and Leonard, Part VI, he’s cautiously considering a serious movie role. The Cosby Show‘s 208 episodes have already generated more than $730 million. And in 1991 Forbes magazine named Cosby the second-richest entertainer in America, with a two- year take of $113 million.
“There’s a historical perspective here, because when this show hit, comedy was pretty much dead on television. Cheers and Family Ties were about the only comedies on the air, and they were not highly rated. This show changed that.”
— Director Jay Sandrich
This is how The Cosby Show ends. On the day before the final taping, Tempestt Bledsoe sits in her dressing room studying during her lunch hour; the show may end Friday, but she has midterms to pass the next Monday to complete her sophomore year as a finance major at NYU. “Nobody’s sad,” she says. “It’s been a wonderful ride. Besides, I’m real fond of watching the reruns. There was a picture when I was 11 — it just blows my mind!” In addition to college, Tempestt also is studying acting at Manhattan’s HB Studio; this summer she’ll appear Off Broadway in From the Mississippi Delta.
Keshia Knight Pulliam transfers her homework from the Huxtable kitchen table to her dressing room. She’s taking dance lessons and she likes to ride her horse, and she’s looking forward to visiting a cousin at camp in upstate New York this summer. “I think my favorite time is when I was very little. I can remember doing those shows. I can remember the lines I said. My little brother, who’s 3, now reminds me of that character. Rudy has mellowed out some!”
Phylicia Rashad packs up photographs and says she’s looking forward to…sleeping. And having more time to be with her 5-year-old daughter, Phylea. “Bill is in rare form,” she assures. “He’s sillier than ever, and you know what that means. He’s wandering all over, saying anything that comes into his head. This is like the first year!”
“Being identified as a Cosby kid is good, but at the same time, people peg you and put you into a certain role. The feedback I’ve gotten is, you know, ‘We’re not interested in That Particular Type.’ I have a tendency to get cast mostly from people who know my work from the theater, because they see a whole other side to me.”
— Sabrina LeBeauf
This is how The Cosby Show ends: David Dinkins, the mayor of New York, shows up to watch the last taping. The R&B group Boyz II Men shows up to harmonize during breaks in the action. Executive producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey fly in from L.A. — they developed the show with Cosby and pushed it through when ABC (and, at first, NBC) turned it down; they got the family upgraded from blue-collar to white-; they got Cosby total creative control and assurance that the show could be taped in New York, not Hollywood. Norman Brokaw, Cosby’s longtime agent, is there from L.A. There are special guests and moms and friends of everyone in the crew. There are three cakes in the green room, and plastic champagne cups lined up in rows for a party on the set later. Jack, the prop guy, wears a tux.
There’s a show to do. But first Cosby and the cast are presented with a very large silver bowl from Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president. With the loss of Cosby and with L.A. Law on the rocks and with the network in third place, Littlefield has a lot of work ahead of him. “Bill’s left us with a few treasures,” he declares, referring to the Cosby spin-off A Different World, which continues to do well on Thursday nights, “a few acorns from the tree.” Etc. Etc. Etc. (He doesn’t say that, but that’s what he says.)
The hour-long episode unfolds: Theo, the dyslexic son, graduates from NYU, and Cliff flashes back to when Theo was 13 and didn’t care about grades because when he grew up he wanted to be Just Folks. The monitor flashes back, too, to the pilot show, and David Dinkins and Boyz II Men see a baby-faced Malcolm and a thinner Cosby with more hair, more energy, more…eagerness.
“There are two things that I would like to do: One is to do with Sidney [Poitier] something like another Uptown Saturday Night — just go slapstick. And the other is I Spy — but Bob Culp must write it and direct it. [A reunion I Spy movie is in development with Universal Television.] I keep seeing the two ! of us, beaten and without our weapons and limping, and we wind up being thrown off a train in the Midwest. And the heavies are coming, and they got all their stuff. And then we find this old couple in a farmhouse, and we bring all this stuff on these old people, who we have to defend. You have mystery! You have surrealism! Bob’s the only one who can write it. But he’s got to do it the way I want it done — because I’m on top now!”
— Bill Cosby
This is the way The Cosby Show ends. Cliff Huxtable demonstrates the glories of the repaired doorbell to his wife. Dingdong! the sound techs chime, and then some great Miles Davis music wells up, a lilting thing that gets Cliff and Clair dancing. And they dance and they dance and pretty soon they’ve moved out of their living room and past the stage manager and past the audience and out the studio doors to their dressing rooms. The audience cheers and cheers, but Bill Cosby doesn’t turn around. He just moves on.