Bill Cosby's Untold Story: Agony, Ambition and a Son's Tragic Murder
This story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
He was the most popular stand-up comedian of the 1960s. The most successful product pitchman of the 1970s ("Then you dip the spoon in the puddin' …"). The most iconic sitcom dad of the 1980s (and the first with an upper-middle-class African-American TV family). And soon he'll be returning to NBC with a new comedy, perhaps as early as next year. Bill Cosby has been entertaining the world for so long, it's easy to forget how many breakthroughs he has made over a 50-plus-year career — and how many personal tragedies he has endured.
Cosby: His Life and Times, a new biography by former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker (Sept. 16 from Simon & Schuster) written with the help of Cosby and his inner circle, is full of never-revealed details about Cosby's life — his rise on the comedy scene with multiple gold records, his groundbreaking roles on TV (starting with I Spy in 1965, which made him the first African-American actor to win an Emmy) and the heartbreaking loss in 1997 of his son, Ennis, in a bizarre murder off the 405 freeway.
The Hollywood Reporter's exclusive excerpt picks up the tale in the early 1970s, with Cosby starting to bounce back from a low point after coming off of two unsuccessful TV shows (The Bill Cosby Show, The New Bill Cosby Show) and nearly being bankrupted by a corrupt business manager. It tells how he rebuilt his fortune by turning himself into a Jell-O and Coca-Cola spokesman, found his way back onto network TV with a sitcom that borrowed generously from his own family life (especially Ennis' struggles with dyslexia) and how he ultimately remade himself into the most successful African-American TV personality in the history of the medium.
— Andy Lewis
The product that Cosby had always dreamed of selling was Jell-O. Growing up, he had watched the greatest comedians of their eras become spokesmen for the brand: Jack Benny in the '40s, Lucille Ball in the '50s, and Andy Griffith and Jim Nabors in the '60s. "Those are acts I want to follow!" he told Norman Brokaw, his longtime agent at William Morris.
Sales had slumped as women entered the workforce and no longer had the time to make the time-consuming original recipes. Now Jell-O's ad agency was plotting a new strategy — appeal to mothers through their children — and realized that Cosby could be just the celebrity to do that, given his popularity with young fans of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and The Electric Company. In 1974, it began rolling out the first of what would become dozens of "Bill Cosby With Kids" campaigns, in which Cosby made children giggle with delight at the thought of Jell-O treats while announcers lectured their parents: "If you have kids, you have to have pudding!"
As Cosby's renown as a pitchman grew, so did his reputation for clashing with the people who made advertising. As always, he preferred to ad lib rather than to recite ad copy word for word. Cosby was notoriously demanding about the kids in the Jell-O commercials. He thought they should reflect an array of races and ethnicities, and he would protest if he didn't get the "rainbow" he wanted. He had little time for the kind of spoiled behavior that was all too common among child models and their stage parents, and more than once he had an offending brat thrown off the set. Cosby made no excuses for his impatience with the Madison Avenue culture. Deep down, he believed that he understood the products he was selling better than most of the executives who oversaw the accounts.
Coca-Cola recruited Cosby for a huge ad campaign called "Have a Coke and a Smile." He and Bob Hope were hired to record "tags" at the end of the new Coke commercials. Hope delivered his as written, while Cosby improvised and came up with something much better. "I saw you!" Cosby said, his face capturing playful conspiracy. "I saw you! You're smiling!"
When Black Enterprise magazine published a cover story on African-American pitchmen in 1981, writer Stephen Gayle reported that the deals earned Cosby more than $3 million a year. As Anthony Tortorici, Coke's chief of public relations, put it: "The three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite and Bill Cosby."
Cosby began his 40s with the kind of financial security that had slipped through his fingers in his early 30s. After buying more than 200 acres surrounding his Massachusetts farm, he had purchased a brownstone in Manhattan and a home in Los Angeles' Pacific Palisades. (He referred to it as "the house that Jell-O built.")
But he also was coming to grips with the frustrations of being a middle-aged man and father. In a comic essay for Ebony, Cosby even talked about how aging had affected his roving eye for women. "One of the most important things when you turn 40 is that you weigh things thusly," he wrote. "You look at the enjoyment you may get from a given activity, and then you look at the amount of work that may have to go into it … for example, sex with a young beautiful woman who has plenty of energy." In a picture that accompanied the story, Cosby stood on a diving board, smoking a cigar, looking over his shoulder wistfully at a bikini-clad, mocha-skinned beauty. "One of those things you want but are glad you can't have," the caption read.
Cosby didn't tell Ebony readers about another step that he had taken to prove that he was serious about cutting back on his womanizing. He told one longtime girlfriend that he wanted to put an end to their relationship, and then he invited the woman and her mother, who had always disapproved of her daughter being involved with a married man, out to dinner. "I'm very happy to be here," the mother told Cosby, "because I always thought you had more sense than that!"
By 1983, Cosby had spent enough time on the road perfecting his family-man material that he was ready to record it. He decided to make a concert film — a medium that ironically had been made popular by Richard Pryor, a comic who had modeled himself after Cosby.
Halfway through the film, Cosby segued into his new material on the trials of parenthood. "My wife and I have five children," he announced, his eyes full of exasperation, "and the reason why we have five children is because we do not want six!" He described the constant squabbling between his kids and how they were always tattling on one another. "Parents aren't interested in justice — they want quiet!" he exclaimed, as the parents in the audience roared in recognition. Executives at 20th Century Fox thought it wasn't edgy enough and they slated it for a limited art house release. Bill Cosby: Himself lasted in theaters for only a matter of weeks before it was relegated to Home Box Office, the new cable movie channel.
By the fall of 1983, he had found a new project in trying to help Sammy Davis Jr. make a comeback. Ever since they had met in the early '60s, Cosby had had a soft spot for Sammy. In the '70s, Cosby had watched Sammy's hard living take its toll. His manager had dumped him, and he was all but broke. In 1980, Cosby suggested that they develop a show together. They tried it out at Harrah's, then at Caesars Palace, and found that they enjoyed each other's company and had onstage chemistry. But Sammy was struggling to hit notes and had stopped trying to dance.
After an early show one day, Cosby appeared in Davis' dressing room. He pointed at his friend's distended belly. "What the f— is wrong with you?" Cosby said. Davis took a sip of the vodka and Coke on his dresser and fingered his paunch. "Age, babe," he said. "I'm not fighting it. Grow old gracefully, they say."
Cosby secured a two-week run on Broadway. Yet even after weeks of promotion, the show was a bust: Every day that Cosby looked at the empty seats at the Gershwin, he grew more upset — about his inability to deliver for Sammy, about his friend's sorry condition, but also about the thought that the years were slipping away for him, too. [Cosby's agent] Brokaw was used to getting middle-of-the-night calls, and he could tell that Cosby was in a particularly somber and reflective state the night he called from New York in the middle of the run with Sammy Davis Jr. "I think I'm ready to try another TV show," Cosby said.
Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner were desperate. The two young programming executives had quit their jobs to form an independent production company. They were working in a one-room office above a shoe store and had taken out second mortgages on their homes to keep the company afloat. The two programmers had made their names at ABC in the late '70s developing the comedies Taxi and Soap. But now it was 1984, and the conventional wisdom in Hollywood was that sitcoms were dead.
"Well, there's Bill Cosby," suggested Larry Auerbach, the head of the TV department at William Morris. "Norman says he may be ready to do another TV show. But he wants a lot of money." When Auerbach told them how much, the producers swallowed hard. They would have to pay Cosby more than $1 million per season if the show succeeded. The producers had always said they were "betting on themselves" when they went independent, but that kind of money would mean betting the company.
Carsey and Werner went to Las Vegas to see Cosby perform and were reminded of everything they loved about him. But they also saw something new and, to them, even more exciting. As young parents — Carsey with two young children, Werner with three — they thought Cosby's new material on parenthood was extremely funny and remarkably true to life.
"What's missing on TV?" was a question they often asked themselves. And when it came to sitcoms in the early '80s, what was missing was the old Father Knows Best sense that parents were in charge. From Silver Spoons to Webster, the family comedies of the day revolved around improbably precocious children manipulating hapless adults.
Shortly after, [Carsey and Werner] were invited to dinner at Cosby's home in Pacific Palisades. Carsey made the argument for a show based on the strong point of view reflected in Cosby's comedy routines, about the loving "war between parents and their children." Flattered by the respect for his stand-up material, Cosby warmed to the idea.
Cosby thought it would be funny for the character to drive a limousine. It would allow him to tell stories about all the people and situations he encountered on the job, and give him a flexible schedule so he could be at home during the day to interact with his children. Cosby proposed that the wife be a plumber or a carpenter. And she would be Latino and speak Spanish, so that when they had an argument, her husband wouldn't be able to understand what she was saying.
Carsey heard two voices inside her head: "Do whatever he wants! He's Bill Cosby, for God's sake! You need him, and you need this show!" But another was saying: "He's Bill Cosby! Even if he throws you out of this house, you need to tell him what you really think."
The producers felt strongly that both [parents on the show] should be college graduates. As Cosby had proved in his stand-up act, the war of wits between parents and children was even funnier if the parents thought of themselves as highly intelligent people.
Finally, shortly before 1 in the morning, Cosby said the words that made Carsey think that she might be getting someplace: "I think my wife would agree with you."
"You will not be a chauffeur!" Camille said when he briefed her on the meeting. "Why not?" Cosby asked. "Because I'm not going to be a carpenter!" Camille said.
Camille rarely got so adamant about casual things. It was as if she was saying that he hadn't come this far — fighting for the dignity of characters on his previous shows, creating the role model of Fat Albert for kids, earning a doctorate in education — to fall back on the stereotypes conjured by a black chauffeur and a Latina handywoman. At one point, she told him that the limo driver idea was so crazy that he should see a psychiatrist and bring back a note.
The final scene of the makeshift pilot called for Cliff Huxtable [Cosby] to go up to Theo's [Malcom-Jamal Warner] messy room to talk to him about his dismal report card. It was based almost word for word on the tense, nightlong argument Cosby had with Ennis about his son's desire to be "regular people." The only embellishment was a visual conceit added for TV: He would hand Theo $300 in Monopoly money and then snatch the bills away to show how quickly the money would go once Theo paid taxes, bought food and clothes and took a girlfriend out on a date.
To make sure they had enough footage, the producers filmed two live performances. In the afternoon, the audience was filled with young people who didn't have day jobs or were playing hooky from school. They laughed during Cliff's Monopoly speech but responded even more strongly to Theo's impassioned response.
"You're a doctor and Mom's a lawyer and you're successful and everything and that's great," he said. "But maybe I was born to be a regular person and have a regular life. If I were a doctor, I wouldn't love you less, because you're my dad. And so, instead of acting disappointed because I'm not like you, maybe you can just accept who I am and love me anyway, because I'm your son."
Cosby thought, "Maybe I'm in trouble here; they're sympathizing with the boy rather than the father."
"Theo!" Cosby snapped. "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life! It's no wonder you get Ds in everything. Now you are afraid to try because you're afraid your brain is going to explode and it will ooze out of your ears. Now I'm telling you, you are going to try as hard as you can and you're going to do it because I said so, and I'm your father." Then he added another line from his comedy act, the one he had always attributed to Bill Cosby Sr. "I brought you in this world," he said, "and I will take you out!"
Cosby's outburst got enough laughs to make the scene work, but he still came away feeling that it hadn't played the way he expected.
That evening, more adults were in the audience. As soon as Cosby let loose with "That's the dumbest thing," the crowd went wild. Director Jay Sandrich thought someone was playing tricks on him. "Who turned on the applause sign?" he asked. Carsey felt a sense of vindication. It suggested that she and Werner had been right about what was missing on TV. Those whooping adults were tired of seeing parents get bossed around by kids.
While his father was becoming the most popular TV star in America, Ennis Cosby was attending The George School, a boarding school in the hills of Bucks County, Pa. A gifted athlete like his father, he played almost every sport — football in the fall, basketball in the winter and lacrosse and track and field in the spring. Cosby would often pay a surprise visit to cheer Ennis on — and give his teammates so many pointers, they would joke that Mr. Cosby thought he was the coach.
Still, Ennis' academic struggles persisted, and so did his father's frustration. Co-workers grew accustomed to walking by Cosby's dressing room and overhearing his distressed phone calls. "You can do it, son!" he would say. "You just have to try harder!" At the same time, Cosby wasn't above making professional fun of his son's travails. When Ennis was 14, according to Cosby, he approached his father with a look that made Cosby suspect that he was going to ask for something.
"Dad," he said, "I was talking to my friends, and they think that when I'm 16 and old enough to drive, I should have my own car."
"Fine," Cosby replied. "You've got wonderful friends. I think it's terrific they want to buy you a car."
"No, Dad!" Ennis said. "They want you to buy the car."
"What kind of car did you have in mind?" Cosby asked.
"Gee, Dad, I think it would be really nice to have a Corvette," Ennis said.
"I'd like to buy you a Corvette — but not when you don't do your homework and you bring home Ds on your report card. So I'll make you a deal: For the next two years, you make every effort to fulfill your potential in school, and even though Corvettes will then cost about $50,000, I'll buy you one. And I won't even care if you do bring home Ds if your teachers tell me you tried as hard as you could."
Ennis grew very quiet. "Dad," he said, "what do you think about a Volkswagen?"
Cosby advised Ennis to apply to Morehouse, which had graduated generations of distinguished African-Americans from Martin Luther King Jr. to Spike Lee. Cosby confided his own mixed feelings about having been one of few blacks at Temple University and how much he envied the bonds forged by his friends who had gone to historically black colleges. Ennis took his father's advice, but in his freshman year he could manage no better than a 2.3 grade point average. In his sophomore year, one friend asked if he had been tested for dyslexia. When Ennis shared that possibility with his parents, they arranged for him to undergo a battery of tests. The diagnosis came back positive. That summer, he took classes designed to help dyslexics and his grades began to improve.
Cosby was so thrilled about Ennis' breakthrough that he decided to share it with his 30 million viewers. But Cosby also wanted to blow the whistle on himself for having suggested for so long that the problem was a character flaw in Ennis, rather than a mental "glitch," as the script called it.
When Theo delivers the news to his sister Vanessa, she turns on Cliff. "To think all these years Dad called you lazy!" she says.
"I know!" Theo says.
During his junior year, Ennis spent three days a week as a student teacher at an elementary school in one of Atlanta's blackest and poorest neighborhoods. After just two weeks, the teacher told him that she had noticed that the boys in the class, particularly the ones who didn't have fathers at home, performed better when he was around. By the time he graduated in the spring of 1992, he had made the Dean's List and been accepted into his dream school, Columbia University's Teachers College. Theo's growth in self-confidence and maturity, entirely borrowed from what happened to Ennis, became the dominant theme of the last three years of The Cosby Show. In the final season, he turns down a corporate job to go to graduate school to become a teacher dedicated to helping kids with learning disabilities.
"Can I speak to you in your dressing room?" producer Joanne Curley Kerner asked Cosby.
"There's been a killing in Los Angeles," she said as soon as the door was closed. "Ennis may have been involved. He may be dead."
Without saying anything, he put on his winter coat, as if to say that he was ready go — now! — to get on his private jet and fly to his boy. But Curley Kerner told Cosby that the police wanted him to stay put. The chief spokesman for the LAPD, Cmdr. Tim McBride, briefed Cosby.
At roughly 1:30 a.m. L.A. time, a middle-aged woman had flagged down a police patrol car near the Mulholland Drive exit to the 405 Freeway. She was frantic and said that she had a friend who had been shot. When she led the officers to a nearby access road called Skirball Center Drive, they found Ennis' dead body, a single bullet wound in his head. He was lying next to a green Mercedes convertible registered to Cosby Productions, and he had been changing a flat tire.
The witness had seen someone, McBride said. But she was badly shaken, in a terrible state. She couldn't describe the suspect clearly. She said that Ennis, then 27, had called her on his car phone and asked her to come help him change the tire by shining the lights of her vehicle so that he could see in the darkness. As she sat in her Jaguar, waiting for him to finish, a man tapped on her window and flashed a gun. Panicked, she drove off, but then she turned around and came back to see that Ennis had been shot and the suspect was fleeing on foot.
"Was it a robbery?" Cosby asked. Robbery might have been a motive, McBride said. But nothing appeared to be missing. Ennis still had a Rolex watch on his wrist and three $20 bills in his pocket. The only object in his hand was a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, as though he had been about to offer his killer a smoke.
Those close to Cosby knew that he had a difficult time with death. When the jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie had fallen ill with pancreatic cancer a few years earlier, Cosby had called him every day, had gone to visit Dizzy in the hospital, had sat by his bedside and told him funny stories to try to keep his spirits up. But he hadn't gone to the funeral. "I don't like to see people horizontally," he told friends at the time.
But now he was going to have to bury Ennis — his only son, his prince! He was going to have to comfort Camille, who would be suffering a mother's grief, the pain of losing the baby she carried and raised to be a man. He would have to be there for Ennis' sisters, for the rest of his family and for their dearest friends.
As he drove into Manhattan, he knew that he couldn't escape the media thronged in front of his house. When the car pulled up to the townhouse, Cosby climbed out, put his key in the front door and then turned to face the reporters.
"He was my hero," he said quietly.
The media circus made it obvious that there was only one place where Ennis could be buried in privacy. Cosby started making arrangements so Ennis could be laid to rest on the family property in Shelburne Falls, Mass., in the fields where he had played as a child.
That evening, Willie Williams, the Los Angeles chief of police, got through to Cosby, and they talked about other parents who had lost their children. They discussed Corie Williams, a 17-year-old black girl who had been shot that same day when she got caught in a gang battle as she was riding home from school in South Central L.A. Cosby asked for the number of Corie Williams' mother and later called her several times to offer comfort.
Ennis' body arrived at home on Saturday. The burial took place the following day, on one of those cold New England afternoons when the snow crunches underfoot. Besides three friends, there were only family members: Cosby and Camille and their four daughters; Cosby's brother, Russell, and his wife; Camille's mother and siblings and their spouses. There was no minister; as far as they were concerned, Ennis was already blessed.
The mourners gathered in a renovated barn where the casket lay in state. Together, they carried it down a small hill to the herb garden. Cosby began to eulogize his son.
"We now want to give praise to God for allowing us to know Ennis," he began, his voice cracking. "Not for giving him to us, but just for letting us know him. Now please bow your heads and give praise to God."
As heads began to lift, Cosby said: "Now if you want to say something to Ennis, please say it."
His daughter Ensa went first. She addressed the casket but she was struggling to find the right words, and she kept breaking down crying. "Ennis, I'm just sounding like myself, aren't I!" she said, and everyone in the circle laughed.
Next Evin, the youngest, spoke up. She began telling a story, but then she interrupted herself. "Yeah, but Ennis, I know that you know that I'm lying!" she said, and everyone laughed again.
As they went around the circle, everyone added a funny story or comment to Ennis, and the laughter continued. Finally, the circle came around to Cosby again. He talked about Ennis' great-great-grandfather Zack Cosby, who had been born a slave but lived to be a proud, free farmer. He talked about Ennis' great-grandfather Samuel Russell Cosby, who had brought the family to Philadelphia and become a factory worker.
He pointed to a spot nearby. "Also, Ennis," he said, "we're going to put down a tree …"
"Yes, Ennis, a pine tree," Camille chimed in. "We're going to plant a pine tree and light it every Christmas, and on your birthday!"
"And our anniversary is coming up …" Cosby added.
"And for my birthday, too …" Camille said.
"I'd like it for my birthday, too …" Cosby said.
Ennis' sisters started to join in: "And on my birthday!" … "And mine!" … "And mine."
Cosby chuckled. "All right, Ennis," he said, "just to celebrate, we're going to turn the lights on the pine tree off on your birthday!"
After lowering the casket into the ground, the mourners made their way back to the barn.
As they walked up the hill, Cosby turned to his brother, Russell.
"Yeah, we went down this hill feeling like slaves," Cosby said, "and we're coming back up feeling like free people."
Excerpted and abridged from Cosby: His Life and Times by Mark Whitaker published by Simon & Schuster, copyright 2014.