In 1966 suave leading man Bill Cosby lamented “Why won’t they let me kiss on TV?” Perhaps frustrated at not getting enough action on the small screen he took matters into his own hands in his private life.
Exactly a half a century later that statement, laden with irony, feels downright creepy as Cosby heads to court for a hearing on criminal sexual assault charges.
50 years ago before this current scandal which now involves 50 women accusing the comedian of drugging their drinks, raping and coercing or sexually assaulting them, Bill Cosby was a hero in a groundbreaking show the first of its kind to feature a leading black actor. During its heyday his character in I Spy provided as much a role model as Dr. Huxtable would several years later
Secret Agent Man
In 1966 Bill Cosby played Alexander Scott the dashing, debonair co-star on NBC’s spy thriller I Spy about two government agents posing undercover as a tennis champ and his tennis pro.
Their real work usually kept them busy chasing villains, spies and of course a bevy of beautiful women.
But when it came to making-out with the fairer sex, Bill Cosby’s character just wasn’t getting his fair share.
That is , according to Photoplay magazine the fan magazine du jour for up-to-date reliable scoops on Americas favorite stars.
Nestled between scandalous articles about Jackie Kennedy’s first disagreement with Bobby Kennedy, Batman’s Adam Wests mother telling all and the jealousy tearing the Lennon Sisters apart was this provocative article about Bill Cosby’s on-screen love life.. or lack of it.
Like most of the articles in the screen fan magazines, the publicity was carefully orchestrated by the studios and publicists who controlled the narrative. These magazines might have alluring headlines but articles tended to be significantly tamer.
Such as this provocative piece on Bill Cosby from July 1966:
“Why Wont They Let Me Kiss on TV?”
“Bill Cosby may not have used those precise words,” the article admits, “but what he said last winter added up to the same thing. Halfway through the first year of NBC’s top rated I Spy series, Cosby wryly observed of his role: “If Alexander Scott doesn’t get to go out with a girl once in a while, people are going to wonder about me.”
In a great twist of irony, it was only recently after his philandering and multiple sexual assault allegations came to light that people really began to wonder about him.
According to Photoplay, viewers were concerned why Cosby wasn’t wooing the ladies.
It so happened that a great many viewers felt the same way, the article continues. “They sent letters. By the sackful. The adventures of Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson ( Robert Culp), they wrote were exciting and believable. When Robinson occasionally waltzed off with a leading lady at the fade out, it was romantic and believable.
But picturing Scott as an undercover agent too dedicated to his job, too intelligent or too busy to bother with the opposite sex- that was downright unbelievable.
Heroes in a continuing series, of course , never get involved in “forever and a day” type romances; each weekly episode presents not only new and different dangers, but new and different girls. Although the 2 spies shared the dangers on a 50 /50 basis the ratio of women wooed and won was about 25 to 1 and…in favor of Robert Culp.
If Cosby wasn’t getting enough action on the screen, he clearly made up for it in his off-screen life. His infidelity and promiscuity are now legendary, many beginning not long after his I Spy days, and we know of at least 50 women he wooed and won thanks to Quaaludes and aggressive behavior.
We Shall Overcome
The article continues with their love scene statistics
That is out of the 26 shows in the ’65-’66 season in only one did Bill Cosby have a chance to play a love scene. The girl was Diana Sands, one of the 3 Negro actresses who have given outstanding performances on the series. Cicely Tyson and Eartha Kitt are the others, but neither of them became romantically involved with Alexander Scott during the course of the program.
Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and political upheaval, the article attempts to offer an explanation as to Cosby’s character lack of sexuality.
There are different- and not necessarily conflicting- reasons presented to explain why Cosby invariably ends up in empty arms. According to producer Sheldon Leonard, the character of Alexander Scott was originally conceived as a brainy, no-nonsense type of person to be a foil for the insouciant Kelly Robinson.
“But we got letters.” Leonard admitted recently, “pointing out that even a Rhodes scholar who speaks 7 languages would be interested in girls.” However, he added, “I’m not going to feed the public the inaccurate concept that a Negro responds only to the sex drive…We want him to have girls, but there has to be sweetness and dignity to it.”
When Cosby himself was asked if he thought perhaps fear of adverse reaction from the viewing audience was the reason, he shrugged and said, “Could be.”
Black Stud Stereotype
In the midst of the tumultuous civil rights movement the network clearly wanted to avoid the old stereotype of the hyper-sexualized black male. And not tap into old stereotypes of black men’s lustful, and uncontrollable behavior to white women, the same ugly stereotypes that had historically caused countless African-American men to be lynched, castrated or burned alive.
This racialized history of rape is a crucial factor in the sexual assault accusations being brought against Cosby today. Some African Americans have referenced this horrific history and feel agitated and suspicious when they see a white woman charging an African American with sexual violence.
TV So White
The Photoplay article goes on to cite the importance of putting the first black man as a leading man:
A longtime observer of the Hollywood scene was more positive. “Look just putting a Negro on-screen as a hero and not mentioning a word about his color was a giant step. It was revolutionary. I’m sure the producers sponsors and everybody else connected with the show were holding their breath to see if the public would buy it.”
“To complicate matters at the very start with a lot of smooching- look, that’s almost $200,000 every week you’re playing around with.
The encouraging fact is the public not only bought the idea of a Negro hero on television but they are demanding full equality for him.
Last winter Cosby told a reporter, “As far as white girls go, I want Scotty sterile. I believe in my women first.”
“Since that time,” we learn “several attractive young Negro actresses have worked on the show.
Equal Opportunity Black and White
Bill Cosby’s victims were a racially diverse group of women.
When it came to sexual abuse, he was an equal opportunist.
It took many women decades to gain the courage to reveal their stories publicly of being drugged and assaulted by Cosby. For some black victims it was particularly difficult.
As poet and author Jewel Allison has powerfully written “Bill Cosby sexually assaulted me. I didn’t tell because I didn’t want to let black America down,” “I let race trump rape.” Allison realized all too well her own, and the African-American community’s, desire to protect the Cosby/Huxtable image and not feed the stereotype of the black male as rapist.
In Living Color
Photoplay continues applauding the revolutionary idea of having a person of color as a leading man:
The wide acceptance of Cosby as a hero is a big plus factor; only 4 stations in the deep south , out of some 200 NBC affiliates refuse to air “I Spy. Trouble with sponsors? When they first cast him everyone said they’d have problems with sponsors but none of the boogie men they feared has materialized.
“And you know, we make it possible for NBC to live up to its slogan as the network of living color!”
Of course the color that mattered most to NBC was green… the show was a huge success.
Rights and Romance
Producer Sheldon Leonard had a sixth sense that tells him it is time for some romance in the hero’s life. Already in the can are several episodes of “I Spy for next season in which the emphasis is on Cosby and the girl playing opposite him.
In one, Cosby and a female agent work together on a mission and the love that develops between them adds poignancy.
“It’s about time,” was Cosby’s comment when asked how he feels about it.
Cosby is quick to deny that he uses his TV stardom as a civil rights crusader. When asked why he took the I Spy role he said frankly “Money!” yet his weekly appearance on the small screen cannot help but pave the way for the fuller participation of Negro actors on TV.
As with most of the publicity, at that time it was important to showcase Bill Cosby as the loving family man.
We walked out from the sound stage out into the bright sunlight of the streets of Desilu. Outside Cosby’s dressing room was parked his big Imperial with the whimsical California license plate DAD048. Standing in the doorway of his two room suite was Bill Cosby leading his tiny daughter Erika by the hand.
In 20 years, Alexander Scott would morph into America’s dad as Cliff Huxtable, on the blockbuster Thursday night sitcom that in 1984 provided the nation with an inspirational vision of a loving, successful, upper-middle-class black family.
Photoplay next introduces us to his lovely wife of 2 years Camille, and the other important ladies in his life.
Returning to his dressing room, Cosby emerged with his lovely wife Camille – who is expecting their second child – and his mother. Seeing Bill Cosby surrounded by 3 women in his life, enjoying a bounty of success far beyond his wildest dreams back in the days when he was an unknown comic, one could not help but wonder how the new romantic phase of his acting career might affect his personal life.
Making make-believe love to luscious leading ladies has resulted in marital problems for more than one actor. On one wall of Cosby’s combination office and dressing room is an autographed photo from his good friend Sidney Poitier. The Oscar-winning Poitier’s romantic involvement with Diahann Carroll lead to the near breakup of his marriage of several years.
Could the same thing happen to Bill Cosby? the article asks is readers.
Stand By Your Man
Today Camille Cosby has persisted in defending her husband, even as the number of women accusing him of rape has risen to nearly as high as the number of years they’ve been married.
Cosby denied the rape allegations, but in several cases conceded that he had had consensual relationships outside of his long marriage to wife Camille. This alone should have provoked some criticism: a man who held his own marriage up as a model of commitment, had in fact been repeatedly unfaithful.
Now lovely Camille may have to testify in a deposition for a civil suit questioning Camille about what she knew about her husband’s extra-martial activities over the past couple decades. She may be grilled about her husband’s quote “sexual proclivities” and whether or not she ever “procured drugs for him.”
Cosby One Cool cat
Nearing the end of the article Photoplay ponders the big question – if on screen romances might affect the Cosby marriage.
When the question was broached to a long time friend of Cosby’s he scoffed.
“Look man,” he said confidently, “Bill is one cat who’ll never blow his cool. Right now he’s making more bread (money) than the average guy can count and he hasn’t changed a bit from the days when he was getting started back in Greenwich Village coffee houses.
Playing a love scene in front of the cameras will be no different from doing in a bad guy with a karate chop- just a job for him.
So I say, bring on the girls! It’ll mean more jobs for us actors who happen not to be white.
And bring on the girls he did!
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© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.