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Bill Cosby Biography: 'I Spy' to 'The Cosby Show'

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Born July 12th, 1937 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, William Henry Cosby Jr. grew up making people laugh. He took his observational and relatable humor across the country, where he earned fans of all kinds. Soon a "Tonight Show" appearance garnered him national exposure, and he began releasing Grammy-winning comedy albums. Then came his acting roles: he was the first African-American to co-star in a dramatic TV series on "I Spy," and this was followed by a string of self-titles shows that won him even more acclaim. The most impressive of these was "The Cosby Show" that debuted in 1984, and changed the way African-Americans were portrayed on TV. Since then, he has kept a high profile as an actor, author and humanitarian. In this video, learns more about the life and career of comedian Bill Cosby.

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Biography of Bill Cosby

Jell-O and sweaters remind us of one man. Welcome to, and today we’ll be learning more about the life and career of Bill Cosby.

Early Years

William Henry Cosby Jr. was born July 12th, 1937 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cosby was a class clown who focused more on sports than studying. After dropping out to work, he joined the Navy and earned his high school equivalency. Cosby eventually left college to develop his talent for making people laugh.

First Appearance on “The Tonight Show”

Cosby toured comedy clubs in the early 1960s, and made fans with his informal routines and silly faces. By 1963 he landed on “The Tonight Show,” and helped subtly push civil rights forward with his relatable, observational stories. In fact, Cosby expanded his audience by avoiding controversial or race-driven themes.

Successful Comedy Albums

Mid-decade, he won a deal with Warner Bros., and began releasing comedy albums that earned him praise and loads of Grammy awards.

“I Spy”

Cosby’s big breakthrough came in 1965 when he became the first African-American to co-star in a dramatic TV show. “I Spy” proved the likeable comedian could also act by earning Cosby three successive Emmys before the show’s end in 1968.

“Bill Cosby Sings”

Besides his TV role, thriving stand-up career and successful comedy albums, Cosby decided to sing. 1967’s “Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings” was a hit, but Cosby largely returned to comedy for the remainder of his career.

“The Bill Cosby Show”

1969’s hit sitcom “The Bill Cosby Show” meant he wasn’t away from TV long. This marked the first time a black entertainer starred in a self-titled comedy series.

Educational Pursuits

Following that success, Cosby returned to school to earn a Masters and a Doctorate. He then nurtured his lifelong desire to teach by actively promoting education as a cast member on 1971’s PBS kids’ show “The Electric Company.” He also recorded “Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs,” which won him a Grammy the following year.

“Fat Albert”

In 1972, Cosby showed off his many talents as host of the short-lived variety series “The New Bill Cosby Show.” But that year’s educational children’s cartoon “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” was the big winner.

Movie Roles

During the ‘70s, Cosby partnered with other high-profile African-American entertainers to combat the popular “blaxploitation” style with more clean comedy films – some were successes, some were failures.

Trusted Pitch-Man

After taking over as host of the educational “Picture Pages” TV segments, Cosby’s credibility won him jobs as a trusted spokesman for brands like Coca-Cola, Kodak and Jell-O.

“The Cosby Show”

But the best was yet to come: in 1984, Cosby debuted his next TV triumph as creator and star of “The Cosby Show.” With a functional, affluent and well-educated black family at its core, this series changed the way African-Americans were portrayed on TV. It also singlehandedly saved the sitcom format and NBC from failure with its bright humor, killer ratings and multitude of awards. The show spawned the 1987 spinoff “A Different World.”

Books and More Movies

Meanwhile, Cosby put pen to paper for bestsellers like “Fatherhood” and “Love and Marriage.” But not everything he touched was gold: he wrote and produced 1987’s spy spoof “Leonard Part 6,” but was so disappointed in the finished product he discouraged audiences from attending. He tried again with 1990’s “Ghost Dad,” and was marginally more successful.


Once his run as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable ended in 1992, he brought his unique style back to the big screen in “The Meteor Man” and “Jack.” 1992’s “The Cosby Mysteries” was followed four years later by his sitcom “Cosby,” where he reunited with Phylicia Rashād and showed off his grouchy side.

Son's Death

Tragedy struck in 1997 when Cosby and his longtime wife Camille lost their son Ennis in a murder. Soon after, Cosby was involved in a paternity scandal, though the accuser was later arrested for extortion.

“Kids Say the Darndest Things”

Cosby focused on work, and in 1998 he launched “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” After four years, Cosby moved onto other projects including the award-winning kids’ show “Little Bill” and 2004’s live-action “Fat Albert” movie.


Outside showbiz, Dr. Cosby has become famous for his social conscience and philanthropy. In 2009, his family-friendly comedy earned him the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. But most importantly, Bill Cosby changed African-American stereotypes and united audiences of all kinds thanks to his upbeat outlook.

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