Question: Settle a bet, please. If Bill Cosby was the first black lead on a TV show, my wife cuts the grass for the rest of the summer. Am I right? Thank you. Carl K., Rochester, N.Y.
Televisionary: I hope the mower's self-propelled, at least, Carl, because you'll still be the one muscling it around the lawn. As I wrote when answering a similar question about Diahann Carroll on Julia last year, African-Americans were the leads on shows like Beulah and Amos 'n' Andy more than a decade before Cosby and Robert Culp's three-year run as U.S. cloak-and-dagger-types on NBC's I Spy kicked off in September 1965.
But if it's any consolation to you as you're shvitzing and circling the old backyard oak with the Lawn-Boy, Cosby was the first African-American lead on a drama. And his Alexander Scott, a language expert and Rhodes scholar to boot, was certainly a departure from the more stereotypical depictions on the first two shows I mentioned.
An interesting point to be made is that nobody behind the show set out to break any barriers when they came up with it. (And I'm not sure what's more notable there that it just sort of happened, or that they didn't engage in a little revisionism and say they meant to break new ground after the show was successful.)
"There was no motivation," series executive producer Sheldon Leonard told TV Guide in 1965. "The part was conceived for a white man but a whole man, a man of humor, physical fitness and competence. I had signed Robert Culp and I looked around for his counterpart. Then I saw Cosby on one of the variety shows and a bulb lit up I was sure he was the man I wanted."
"We did not set out to get a Negro to star in a feature," NBC exec Grant Tinker added. "We think it is right and proper, but it was not planned in any sense."
For his part, Culp didn't see the show as intentionally groundbreaking, either. "If Cos and I have any kind of mission on this show, it's something we've never had to discuss," he said.
As far as Cosby was concerned, he had his work cut out for him trying to keep up with Culp, who was experienced in front of a camera and had more star power going for him when the series debuted. Cosby was a comic, but he didn't have much background in the acting game. "At first I was wooden. I spoke without expression," Cosby said. "I had to learn that the face speaks, the muscles of your neck, your hands, your eyebrows all act. Bobby gives me the help I need."
Culp and some behind-the-scenes people insisted Cosby was selling himself short, but that wasn't the farthest from the truth he got. He also swore that if he made enough money in showbiz, he'd quit to become a teacher. As Cosby Show fans know well, that didn't quite happen (though, to be fair, he concentrated quite a bit on education-entertainment hybrids and probably taught more kids with Fat Albert alone than he might've reached in a classroom).
Otherwise, the cast and crew were too busy trying to make I Spy's unique shooting schedule work to worry about making racial history. What made the show look so great was that they shot on location in different countries. Trouble was, that was also what made it so difficult.
In Hong Kong, they dealt with typhoons and curious crowds who forced them to hide the camera while shooting. But that wasn't so easy. They built a box for the camera with a small hole for the lens, but then had to deal with onlookers peeking into the box to see what was inside. In Italy, a sidewalk-cafe scene was repeatedly interrupted by a mother yelling out the window of a nearby apartment for her son to come home for lunch (turned out he was an extra who was in the cafe scene). One guest star came down with laryngitis in Acapulco. En route to Spain, Culp and a different guest star got food poisoning from the sandwiches they ate on the flight. The company's Japanese production manager was kidnapped in Japan and only a payoff to the yakuza got him back. In Mexico, a prop man caught a sailfish for a scene to be shot the next day and kept it overnight in the harbor, guarding the line all night. When they hauled it up in the morning, it had been picked clean by other fish.
But the most interesting problem by far was presented by a Chinese actor shooting a scene with Cosby in Hong Kong. The setup called for Cosby to fall with his face next to a pigsty, pop up and shoot his assailant dead. Naturally, Cosby wanted to do it in one take, but his target kept dying unrealistically, expiring with one leg up in the air, whirling around without actually falling down, or dying in a sitting position. After five takes, they realized he thought the camera would capture his soul if he died convincingly.
Been to Hong Kong recently or seen any films coming out of that market? I'm betting that kind of thing's not much of a problem anymore.