Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms: Backstage with the Comedy Legend and Old Friend Bob Boozer
UPDATE: It is with a heavy heart I report that hoops legend Bob Boozer, whose friendship with Bill Cosby is glimpsed in this story, passed away May 19. Photographer Marlon Wright and I were in Cosby’s dressing room when Boozer appeared with a pie in hand for the comedian. As my story explains, the two went way back, as did the tradition of Boozer bringing his friend the pie. This blog also contains a profile I did of Boozer some years ago as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. For younger readers who may not know the Boozer name, he was one of the best college players ever and a very good pro. He had the distinction of playing in the NCAA Tournament, being a gold medal Olympian, and winning an NBA title.
My Bill Cosby odyssey continued in unexpected ways the first weekend in May.
After interviewing him by phone for two-plus hours in advance of his Sunday, May 6 show, I secured a face to face interview with him in his dressing room. Photographer Marlon Wright accompanied me. Only moments before our meeting, however, it appeared there would be no face time with the legend. Word of our backstage interview somehow hadn’t reached Cosby and as we walked into his Orpheum Theater dressing room he was unsuccessfuly trying to confirm things with his PR handler. That’s when I assured him I was the same reporter who had talked to him by phone at length. When he gave me a look that said, “Do you know how many reporters I talk to?” I blurted out, “I’m the remedial man,” referring to our shared past of testing into remedial English in college, something that became a recurring joke between us during that marathan phone interview. ”Why didn’t you say so?” he said, and just like that we were in.
After 15 minutes or so I was prepared to thank him for his time when an assistant came back to announce that Cosby’s old Omaha friend, Bob Boozer, who was a college All-American. Olympic gold medalist and NBA titlist, was outside. Cosby’s face lit up. Marlon and I exchanged a quick look that said, ‘Let’s stick around,” and so we did. What played out next was an intimate look at how a King of Comedy holds court before going on. Boozer brought a sweet potato pie his wife Ella baked.
Cosby was obviously touched and kidded his friend with, “I appreciate you not getting into it.” These two former athletes traded good-natured jibes about each others’ ailments and at one point Cosby placed his hands on Boozer’s knees and intoned, like a faith healer, “Heal.”
Then the assistant popped in again with memorabilia fans had brought for Cosby to sign, which he did, and not long after that a contingent from Boys Town was ushered in to meet The Cos. Family teachers Tony and Simone Jones, along with their son and nine young men who live with them, plus some BT staffers, all filed in and Cosby greeted each individually. What played out right up until his curtain call was a scene in which Cosby peppered the adults and kids with probing questions, sometimes kidding with them, sometimes dead serious with them. It turned into a mini lecture or seminar of sorts and a very cool opportunity for these young people, who might as well have been The Cosby Kids from Fat Albert or from his family sit-coms.
By the time we all said goodbye our expected 15 minutes with Cosby had turned into 45 minutes and we’d gotten a neat glimpse into how relaxed and down to earth the entertainer is and just how well and warmly he interacts with people. I stayed for the show of course and it was more of the same, only a more animated Cosby was revealed.
Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms: Backstage with the Comedy Legend and Old Friend Bob Boozer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the New Horizons
Holding court in his Orpheum Theater dressing room before his May 6 Omaha show, comedy legend Bill Cosby was thoroughly, authentically, well, Bill Cosby.
The living legend exuded the easy banter, sharp observations and occasional bluster that defines his comedic brand. He was variously lovable curmudgeon, cantankerous sage and mischievous child.
He appeared tired, having played Peoria just the night before, but his energy soared the more the room filled up.
With his concert start nearing and him blissfully unaware of the time, he played host to this reporter, photographer Marlon Writght, old chum Bob Boozer and the family teachers and youth residents of a Boys Town family home.
By turns Cosby was entertainer, lecturer, father-figure and cut-up as he shook hands, autographed items and told stories.
He’s made the world laugh for 50 years now as a standup comedian, though these days he performs sitting down. He said colleagues of his, including jazz musician Eubie Blake, have accused him of not having an act. Cosby simply tells stories, with occasional clips from his TV shows projected on an overhead screen.
“Eubie wasn’t angry when he said it, he was just jealous. He’s from the days of vaudeville where guys had set ups and then the punchline,” said Cosby. “I think he was looking for the set up and the punchline and all I was doing was the same thing when he’s at my house.”
By that Cosby means talking. He talks about everything and nothing at all. His genius is that he makes none of it seem designed, though his stories are based on written material he writes himself. What makes his riffs seem extemporaneous is his impromptu, conversational delivery, complete with pauses, asides and digressions, just like in real life. Then there are the hilarious faces, voices and sounds he makes to animate his stories. What sets him apart from just anyone talking, he said, “is the performance in the storytelling.”
His enduring appeal is his persona as friend or neighbor, and these days uncle or grandfather, regaling us with tales of familiar foibles. He invites us to laugh at ourselves through the prism of true-to-life missteps and adventures in growing up, courting, parenting and endless other touchstone experiences. Making light of the universal human condition makes his humor accessible to audiences of any age or background.
“That’s the whole idea of the writing – everybody identifying with it,” he said.
That’s been his approach ever since he began taking writing seriously as a student at Temple University in his native Philadelphia. He found his voice as a humanist observer while penning creative writing compositions for class.
“I was writing about the human experience. Who told me to do it? Nobody. I just wrote it. Was I trying to be funny? No. Was I reading any authors who inspired me? No.”
It’s not exactly true he didn’t have influences. His mother read Mark Twain to him and his younger brothers when he was young. Just as she could spin a yarn or two, he was himself a born storyteller amusing friends and teachers. He also admired such television comics as Sid Caesar and Jack Benny, among many others, he drew on to shape his comic alter ego.
He may never have done anything with his gifts if not for a series of events that turned his life around. The high school drop out earned his GED, went to college, then left early to embark on his career, but famously returned to not only finish his bachelor’s degree but to go on and earn a master’s and a Ed.D in education.
He’s sreceived numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. There have been dark days too. His only son Ennis was murdered in 1997. The comic’s alleged infidelity made headlines.
Through it all, he’s made education his cause, both as advocate and critic. His unsparing views on education and parenting have drawn strong criticism from some but he hasn’t let the push back silence him.
He said growing up in a Philadelphia public housing project he was a bright but indifferent student, devoting more time to sports and hanging out than studying. He recalls only two teachers showing real interest in him.
“I wasn’t truant, I just didn’t care about doing anything. I was just there, man. I was still in the 11th grade at age 19.”
He describes what happened next as “divine intervention.” The high school drop-out joined the U.S. Navy., Cosby hated it at first. “That was a very rude epiphany.” He stuck it out though, working as a medical aide aboard several ships, and obtained his high school equivalency. “I spent four years revamping myself.”
He marveled a GED could get him into college. Despite awful test scores Temple University accepted him on an athletic scholarship in 1960.
“I was the happiest 23-year-old in the world. They put me in remedial everything and I knew I deserved it and I knew I was ready to work for it. I knew what I wanted to be and do. I wanted to become a school teacher. I wanted to jump those 7th and 8th grade boys who had this same idea I had of just sitting there in class.
“Being in remedial English, with the goal set, that’s the thing that began to make who I am now.”
Fully engaged in schoolwork for the first time, he threw himself into creative writing assignments. He wrote about pulling his own tooth as a kid and the elusive perfect point in sharpening a pencil.
The day dreaming that once hampered his studies became his ticket to fame. He said the idea for one of his popular early bits, “The Toss of the Coin,” came during Dr. Barnett’s American History class at Temple.
“I began to drift as he was talking about the Revolutionary War.”
Cosby imagined war as a sporting contest with referees, complete with captains from each team – the ragtag settlers and the professional British army. A coin toss decided sides. In the bit the referee instructs the settlers, “You will wear fur hats and blend into the forest and hide behind rocks and trees.” To the Red Coats, the referee says, “You will wear red and march in a straight line and play drums.”
The day dreams that used to land him in trouble were getting him noticed in the rights way. He recalls the impact it made when the professor held up his papers as shining examples and read them aloud in class to appreciative laughter.
“That was the kickoff. That’s when my mind started to go into another area of, Yes you can do, and I began to think, Gee whiz, I could write for comedians. And all my life from age 23 on, I was born again…in terms of what education and the value is. To study, to do something and be proud of it – an assignment.”
He’s well aware his life could have been quite different.
“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”
While a Temple student he worked at a coffee house and he first performed his humorous stories there. Then he began filling in for the house comic at a Philly club and warming-up the audience of a local live radio show.
Those early gigs helped him arrive at his signature style.
“When I was looking for that style I saw it a Chinese restaurant. It was a party of eight white people and there was a fellow talking and everybody was just laughing. Women were folding napkins up to cover their faces. This was not a professional performer. Upon analyzing it I noted three things. First of all, he’s a friend of the other seven. Secondly, he’s talking about something they all know that happened. Thirdly, it happened to him and they are enjoying listening to his experience from his viewpoint
“And so I decided that’s who I want to be, that’s the style, because my storytelling is the same thing, whether I’m talking about pulling my own tooth or sharpening a pencil until it’s nothing but metal and rubber.”
Or the vicissitudes of being a father or son.
Not everyone recognized Cosby’s talents.
“I showed this comedian working in a nightclub a thing I wrote about Clark Kent changing clothes in a phone booth. In the bit a cop shows up and says, ‘What are you doings?’ and Kent says, ‘I”m changing clothes into Superman,’ and the cop says, Look, come out of there.’ ‘No, I’m Superman, can’t you see this red S on my chest?’ And the cop says, ‘You’re going to have a red S and a black eye.’ The comic read it and said, ‘This is not funny’ Within a couple years it was on my first album.”
Cosby ventured to New York City and followed the stand-up circuit. Then came his big break on The Tonight Show. Sold out gigs and Grammy-winning recordings followed.
Along with Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell and Godfrey Cambridge, Cosby was among a select group of black comics who crossed over to give white audiences permission to laugh at themselves. None enjoyed the breakout success of Cosby. Without his opening the doors, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy would have found it more difficult to enjoy their mainstream acceptance.
“I would imagine it was something brand new for an awful lot of people – to see this black person talking and making a connection and laughing because, Yeah, that happened to me.”
The iconic comic’s raconteur style has translated to best selling albums and books, where he mines his favorite themes of family, fatherhood and children. His warm, witty approach has made him a television and film star.
In his dressing room he appeared fit and comfortable in the same simple, informal attire he wore on stage: gray sweatshirt with the words Thank You printed on it and gray sweatpants with a draw string. The only thing missing from his stage outfit was his flip-flops. He spoke to us in his socks.
Totally in his element, with light bulb-studded mirrors, a soft leather sofa and bottles of Perrier water within easy reach, he captivated the audience of two dozen inside the dressing room just as expertly as he did the 1,500 souls in the auditorium.
For a few minutes photographer Marlon Wright and I had The Cos all to ourselves.
Two weeks earlier I conducted a long phone interview with the comic in which he discussed the “born again” experience that led to his path as a writer-performer. We hit it off and I struck a real chord when I shared that, like him, I tested into remedial English as a college freshman.
“Hey, man, we’re remedial,” became our running private joke.
He agreed to a photo shoot. Only when Marlon and I arrived at the Orpheum his aide informed us the appointment wasn’t booked on “Mr. Cosby’s” schedule. Escorted to his dressing room, I found Cosby trying to reach his publicist to confirm things. I reminded him of our phone interview from a couple weeks back and he shot me an exasperated look that said, Do you know how many reporters I talk to?
Determined not to blow this opportunity, I blurted out, “I’m the remedial man.” “Oh, why didn’t you say so?” he said, smiling broadly and inviting me to sit down. Just then, the phone rang. It was the PR person he’d tried earlier. “Yes, yes, I got him here.” he told her. “He finally said the key word, remedial, so I let him in.”
In the weeks preceding his concert Cosby did a local media blitz to try and boost lagging ticket sales. Sitting across from him in his dressing room, less than an hour before his performance, he expressed disappointment at the low number of tickets sold but pragmatically attributed it to the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday slot.
Asked what it is that still drives him to continue performing at age 74 and he answered, “I am still in the business. I’m still thinking, I’m still writing, I’m still performing extraordinarily well, and in a master sense.” It echoed something he said by phone about going on stage with a plan but being crafty enough to go where his instincts take him.
“Once I pass that threshold from those curtains to come out and sit down I know what I would like to do but I keep it wide open. I don’t know which way it’s going to shift, and a part of it has to do with the audience and the other part has to do with me – where am I at that time and what’s the brain connecting with in terms of being excited about something.
“I did a show in Tyler, Texas and I started out with enthusiasm talking about something and then I didn’t like what I was doing and I shifted the material to nontrends to trends until finally they began to click in. In other words, some audiences are and are not, and you have to go out there and find that, find what keeps and what works. It’s 50 years now. I know exactly where to mine and what to do.”
He knows he’ll eventually hit the sweet spots. As an American Instiution he has the luxury too of having audiences in the palm of his hand.
“Now, we already have a relationship that’s wonderful because people already know I’m funny, so there’s no guessing there, but on a given day, they are or they aren’t. Are they trusting you? Do I feel that way? It’s very complex but because I’m a master at it I think you want me in that driver’s seat to turn you on.”
It takes confidence, even courage to go out on that stage.
“Yes sir, and you need that, no matter what, I don’t care if you’re a driving instructor or what. If your confidence goes bad in comedy…” he said, his voice trailing off at the thought. “Whether you’re writing or getting ready to perform or sitting with friends and talking you have to have that confidence.”
He can’t conceive of slowing down when he still has the physical energy and mental edge to perform in peak fashion. Besides, he pointed out he’s not alone pursuing the comic craft at his age. Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl. Bill Dana, Dick Gregory, Dick Cavett and Joan Rivers are older yet and still performing at the top of their game.
He said he fully intends returning to Omaha and selling out next time.
“So there I am talking about coming back – see?”
Besides, comics never retire unless their mind goes or body fails. The way he looks, Cosby might be at this for decades more.
Asked if he has any favorite routines or rituals backstage, he said aside from resting and signing memorabilia, he generally does what’s made him famous – talk. He bends the ears and tickles the funny bones of theater staffers, promoters, personal assistants, friends, acquaintances, fans.
Then, as if on cue, his aide Daniel popped in to say Bob Boozer was outside. Cosby immediately lit up, saying, “Ahhhh, all right, bring Bobby in and tell him he cannot come in without my you know what.” Boozer, the hoops legend, lumbered in bearing a sweet potato pie his wife Ella baked.
“Here’s Ella’s contribution to 2012 Cosby,” Boozer said handing the prized dessert to Cosby, who accepted it with a covetous grin that would do Fat Albert proud.
“I appreciate that you didn’t get in it,” Cosby teased Boozer, who for decades has made a tradition of bringing the entertainer Ella’s home-made sweet potato pie whenever he performs here.
Boozer confided later, “He loves it. I never will forget one time at Ak-Sar-Ben he had the pie on-stage with him and somebody in the crowd asked if they could get a slice, and he he draped his arms over it and said, ‘Heavens no, this pie is going back on the plane with me…’”
The two men go way back, to when Boozer played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Cosby was shooting I Spy. A teammate of Boozer’s, Walt Hazzard, was a Philly native like Cosby and Hazzard introduced Cos to Boozer and they hit it off.
A coterie of black athletes and entertainers would gather at Cosby’s west coast pad for marathon rounds of the card game Bid Whist and free-flowing discussions.
“We usually would have a hilarious time,” Boozer recalled.
When the Lakers were on the road and Cosby was performing in the same town Boozer said he, Hazzard and Co. “would always show up at his performances and visit with him about old times and that kind of thing.”
Together again at the Orpheum the pair reminisced. They share much in common as black men of the same age who helped integrate different spheres of American culture. They were both athletes, though at vastly different levels. Cosby was a fair track and field competitor in high school, the U.S. Navy and at Temple University. Boozer was an all-state basketball player at Omaha Tech High, an All-American at Kansas State, a member of the 1960 gold medal-winning U.S, Olympic team and the 6th man for the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
When Boozer entered the then-fledgling National Basketball Association in 1960 blacks were still a rarity in the league. When he retired in ’71 he became one of the first black corporate executives in his hometown of Omaha at Northwestern Bell.
Cosby’s such a staple today that it’s easy to forget he helped usher in a soft revolution. At the same time his good friend Sidney Poitier was opening doors for African-Americans on the big screen, Cosby did the same on the small screen. He became the first black leading man on network TV when he teamed with Robert Culp in the groundbreaking episodic series, I Spy (1965-1968).
Cosby broke more ground with his TV specials, talk-variety show appearances and his innovative educational children’s program, The Electric Company (1971-1973). He was the first black man to headline his own series, The Cosby Show (1969-1971). But it was his second sit-com, also called The Cosby Show (1984-1992), that became a national sensation for its popular, positive portrayals of black family life. The series made Cosby a fortune and a beloved national figure.
The two men have know each other through ups and downs. So when these two old war horses reunite there’s an unspoken rapport that transcends time.
Like any ex-athletes of a certain age they live with aches and pains. At one point Cosby placed his hands on Boozer’s knees and intoned, “Heal, heal.” Later, I asked Boozer if it did any good, and he said, “No, I wish it would though.”
Pie wasn’t the only thing Boozer brought that day. The Nebraska Board of Parole member volunteers with youth at Boys Town. A family home there he’s become particularly “attached to” is headed by family teachers Tony and Simone Jones, who at Boozer’s invitation arrived with the nine boys that live with them. Cosby went down the half-circle line of boys one by one to meet them – clasping hands, getting their names, asking questions, horsing around.
Cosby with words of wisdom for Carvel Jones
When told that Tony and Simone are in charge of them all Cosby saw a teachable moment and asked, “You live with them? Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”
“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” said Simone.
“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” probed Cosby.
Tony next gave it a try, saying, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several of the boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked them. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”
“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself, because you can see he’s eating well,” Cosby teased the stout Jones. “And that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you,” Cosby told the kids.
The conversation then turned to what Cosby called “the hard knock life” these kids come from. He noted that youth today confront different challenges than what he or Boozer faced growing up and that Boys Town provides healthy mediation.
“We lived with our biological parents. Now my father drank too much and said he didn’t want any responsibility, which left the whole job on my mother, so we lived in a housing project. Yet we didn’t have the pressures these guys have, the insanity that exists today, and by insanity I mean not normal. Yes, there is a normal. What is normal? Normal is, ‘Don’t do that’ – ‘OK.’ Abnormal is, ‘Don’t do that.’ ‘No, I’m going to do it because you said don’t do it.’
“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns but you had better than a 70-30 chance that gun would blow up in his hands. But now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”
Cosby said it comes down to caring and making good choices.
“The first black to score a point in the NBA, Earl Lloyd, wrote a book and he tells the story of being 14-15 years old and he comes home and his mother says, ‘Where’ve you been?’ He’s stammering, he knows he’s caught with something, avoiding telling her he’s been in a place she doesn’t want him. She says, ‘You were with those boys on that corner.’ and he says, ‘But Mama, I wasn’t doing anything.’ And his mother says, ‘If you’re not in the picture, you cant be framed,’ and if you don’t understand what I just said someone will explain it to you.
“But the idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. There’s a place called Girard College in my hometown. You need to look it up. Forty-three acres. I call it the 10th Wonder of the World.”
The college, where Cosby gave the commencement speech last year, has a largely African-American student enrollment and graduates a high percentage of its students, most of whom come from at-risk circumstances. He said it’s a shining example of what can be.
“What’s missing in this society for black people and people of color is to own something, a small business to build upon. Many of you because of your color you will get the feeling, Yeah I can study and I can be but once I step away from college and go outside of that there are too many people that look at my color and listen to my language and they wont really welcome me. And all of you here know exactly what that feels like.”
Then, turning to Tony and Simone and referring to the boys, he said, “We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing, to find business people willing to allow the boys to not go get coffee or to tie their shoes but to shadow, and it can happen in hospitals, it can happen in factories, businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”
Cosby clearly admires the difference that adults like Tony and Simone make, saying he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”
“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” said Simone.
And with that, the legend bid his guests goodbye. As the entourage filed out with smiles, handshakes and break-a-leg well wishes this reporter was reminded of what Cosby said about the possibilities he began to see for himself once his college English professor took notice.
“I knew I was on track with what I wanted to do.”
Things have come full circle now and Cosby embraces the each-one-to-teach-one position of inspiring young people to live their dreams, to realize their potential.
“Hey, hey, hey…”
- Bill Cosby Coming to Omaha to Perform Comedy Concert May 6 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids: The Complete Series (werd.com)
- Bill Cosby: “We’ve Got To Get The Gun Out Of The Hands… (alan.com)
- Did Bill Cosby change how America views African American families? (tammymv.wordpress.com)
- Bill Cosby Visits Drexel’s Family Health Services Center Ahead Of Expansion (philadelphia.cbslocal.com)
- Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education (wordpressreport.wordpress.com)