When Bill Cosby Not Only Broke a Color Barrier but Did So in a Revolutionary Quiet Fashion – Opinion

Don’t recoil automatically: there is a historical significance with the disgraced Cosby and a lesson in social mores.

Although Bill Cosby today is viewed with contempt and disdain for multiple sexual assault charges, and the subsequent jail sentences, these recent revelations regretfully overshadow a decade-long career that saw him as an actor and comedian who had a lot of important impacts on culture. His success as a black comedian led to a TV career. In the 1970s and early ’80s, he broke ground in children’s content with the successful “Fat Albert,” running for 17 years. He became a superstar with the self-titled sitcom in 1980, which remained on the Top of the Ratings for several years.

As he dabbled in movies during the 70’s, television was his primary focus, following “The Cosby Show” with a number of moderately successful ventures. All of these ventures were born out of his literal success in prime-time television 55 years ago. 

Stories about spy spies became very popular in the 1960s. It is true that a British secret agent was credited. The books by Ian Fleming featuring James Bond became translated to theaters, and as “Dr. No” exploded, Hollywood responded in kind. A number of spy-themed programs arrived, such as “Mission Impossible,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” “The Saint,” and others–and it was in this era that NBC decided to tap that fertile market.

”I Spy” titles, screenshot. Credit: CBS Productions

Sheldon Leonard is a well-known actor of character roles. In fact, Leonard had previously moved to production and was inspired by the possibility of creating a series about spying for the network. In its original incarnation, “I Spy” was designed to feature a duo of agents, one a younger, central character, and the other an older spook serving in a role as his mentor. Leonard thought it was a dangerous idea and made a bold casting decision.

Bill Cosby rose in popularity at the time that the production was being built. He was coming from New York nightclubs and Philadelphia. Leonard changed the show’s concept to allow Cosby to join the crew. His fame was so great that he won a few Grammy Awards for comedy albums. Cosby became the first African-American performer to be given a major role on television.

Cosby’s inclusion meant that the two leads would be positioned as equals. Robert Culp played “Kelly Robinson,” who posed undercover as a traveling tennis player. Cosby, as “Alexander ‘Scotty’ Scott,” pretended to be his trainer, and this ruse allowed the agents to travel to various international locations. Far more than a tag-along, token character, Cosby’s Scotty was highly educated and multilingual, while Culp was the spy-trained agent with street smarts. This was only the beginning of the innovative portrayal.

As the show was unveiled, there was a significant decision made by the two leads – Cosby’s race would not be a central aspect of the show. This departure is radical from what we are used to seeing when a POC person makes an important breakthrough in a field. But with “I Spy,” they took an approach that is a 180-degree departure from this – they purposefully did not make a big deal out of Cosby’s achievement.

For a moment, think about that. This was the first POC performer ever seen in primetime, and there was no trumpeting of this by the network, the production did not promote the show by highlighting the racial component, and the plots of the episodes did not allude to Cosby’s race. Cosby was known for his standup comedy routines that did not feature his race. Instead, he emphasized the positive aspects of every day life.

This was the same production that TV used, and it worked. Instead of broadcasting the historical nature of the casting, Cosby’s arrival was treated simply as normal, and this was a remarkable decision that saw Cosby first accepted, then lauded. The first-time actor was recognized by becoming the first African American actor to win the Emmy, doing so three years running, and “I Spy” won the Golden Globe for best drama series in its second year.

”I Spy” scene. Credit: CBS Productions

It serves as an example for activists and racial problems. This is not the usual way to go about demanding equality or forcing society into its hands. While these tactics might work in some cases, they are equally likely to be met with resistance. Human nature is known for its reflexive reaction against forceful enactment. Equality can be achieved by normalizing the process, rather than forcing others to do so.

In 1965, instead of telling people to watch Bill Cosby on TV, the network and studio simply showed him on their screens so that they could let viewers discover him. He was found and eventually welcomed in homes. Consider taking the “I Spy” approach, and there is a good chance that acceptance arrives as a more natural result.

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