Tom Durkin
Special to Prospector

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July 3, 2013
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Cosby: A dropout who went back to school

“I had no intention whatsoever of becoming a comedian,” Bill Cosby revealed in a phone interview June 24.

There are some funny stories behind that lack of intention … and the legendary entertainer will share some of his hilarious, true-life tales Friday evening at the Nevada County Fairgrounds as the Center for the Arts presents An Evening with Bill Cosby.

Born a poor black kid in Philadelphia in 1937, Cosby had a high IQ but low motivation. He flunked out of high school in the 10th grade.

“I had mismanaged my life academically until age 19 and nine-twelfths,” he admitted. “I joined the Navy because I was just trying to get off my block.”

The Navy taught him many things, but most important, “The one thing you will always need is an education.”

“When I came out of the Navy, I had a GED. I talked to the track coach at Temple University, and he offered me a scholarship.”

It turned out Cosby was a better athlete than a student.

“I had a 500 total score in the SAT. They put me in remedial everything, and man, I was the happiest remedial-everything you ever met.”

He recalled thinking at the time: “I’m going to be a schoolteacher! I’m going to the best physical education teacher this world has ever known.”

Remedial comedy

Ironically, unexpected success in a remedial English composition class changed his life.

“I had no intention of being funny. I just meant, for the first time in my life, to think, to do something without stopping and saying that’s good enough because my good enough was pitiful — until those compositions.”

Although his spelling and grammar were somewhat lacking, Cosby got A’s on his first two papers in English composition. The teacher liked the papers so much he read them to the class, and “I began to see there was an importance for me to write down things that I thought to be funny.”

During this same time, he was working in a bar at night and telling funny stories for tips.

One day, “This English couple came in. I’m tending bar and playing football and studying — the books are behind the booze.”

The English couple told him, “We’ve been talking to a fella up in Greenwich Village about you and how wonderful you do Lenny Bruce’s material and some things you’ve written, and we think you’re just amazing. He wants you to come up, and he’ll listen to you.”

“So I drove up, still in college,” Cosby said. “The guy gave me a job. Sixty dollars a week.”

He dropped out of school. Again.

From Greenwich to Hollywood

The early ’60s were a racially tense time, and Cosby hadn’t yet found the clean, nonracial groove that was to make him a comic superstar.

“Once, this guy came up to me and said, ‘You wouldn’t be funny, even if you were white.’” Cosby still seethes at that memory. “Man, he was the stupidest white man I ever met. I wanted to punch him in the face!”

But he didn’t. Instead, he hit the national comedy circuit. Within a few years, he’d released several comedy albums. In 1965, he won his first Grammy Award.

Then, “three Jews and a Scotchman” lured him to Hollywood. Writer-producers Sheldon Leonard, Mort Fine and David Friedkin wanted him to co-star with actor Robert Culp in a TV show called “I Spy.”

“I read so poorly. I could have been fired, and it wouldn’t have bothered me,” Cosby said.

Nevertheless, the producers decided, “This is a keeper. Let’s work with it.”

It worked out so well that Cosby won three straight Emmy Awards.

Back to school. Again

In 1970, “The Bill Cosby Show” was nominated for four Emmys but didn’t win any, a fact that still rankles him to this day.

“I was very, very upset. I was spoiled.”

Nevertheless, the dean of education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was impressed with Cosby’s heartfelt portrayal of gym teacher Chet Kincaid in the short-lived situation comedy (two seasons).

“He offered me a chance to earn a master’s and an Ed.D., using whatever things I wanted.”

Cosby leapt at the chance. His work with “The Electric Company” earned him an M.A. in 1972, and he wrote a 267-page dissertation — “An Integration of the Visual Media via ‘Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids’ into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning” — for his doctorate in education in 1976.

Temple University subsequently awarded him a B.A. for lifetime achievement.

At last count, Bill Cosby has won nine Grammys, four Emmys, the Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and more than a dozen honorary doctorates from major universities …

Apparently, you don’t have to stay in school — but it helps to go back.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at tdurkin@vfr.net.


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The Union Updated Jul 3, 2013 11:56PM Published Jul 5, 2013 03:31PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.