Show Business: He has a hot TV series, a new book - and a booming comedy empire

He has a hot TV series, a new book -- and a booming comedy empire

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The bedroom is pitch dark. Two young brothers who share a crowded bed are busily not going to sleep. As one of them, Bill Cosby, describes it years later in a classic monologue, the night is an extended comedy-drama of horseplay, taunting and hand-to-hand combat: "I'm tellin' Dad, I'm tellin' Dad . . ." "I never hit you, I never hit you . . ." Each outburst is followed by a visit from their father, who thunders like Zeus, "If I hear any more laughing . . . I'm going to KILL YOU!"

Flash forward. Cosby is the father now, presiding over a brood of five children on TV's top-rated series. When he arrives home in one episode, three of his daughters begin fawning over him. "What's blown up or on fire?" asks Dad skeptically. The youngest, it turns out, has cut photographs out of some of his favorite books to make a report for school. But Dad neither explodes nor affixes blame, just leafs resignedly through her handiwork. "Very good report," he comments. "Very expensive."

Slow dissolve. Cosby has just celebrated a notable birthday, prompting new thoughts -- and a new medium -- for America's most famous father. "I recently turned fifty," he writes at the outset of his book Time Flies, "which is young for a tree, mid-life for an elephant, and ancient for a quarter-miler, whose son now says, 'Dad I just can't run the quarter with you anymore unless I bring something to read.' "

Perhaps no performer in history has chronicled his life cycle so thoroughly, or so publicly, as Bill Cosby. Certainly no one has been so successful at it. Even Cosby, a man fond of outsize cigars and outlandish hyperbole, would have trouble overstating the scope of his popularity. As main attraction and chief architect of The Cosby Show, television's No. 1-rated program for three straight seasons, he dominates the medium as no star has since the days of Lucille Ball and Milton Berle. And he has parlayed his TV success into a multimedia empire that seems to grow like the tall tales the young stand-up comic once spun out of his Philadelphia childhood.

The Cosby Show, whose fourth season begins on NBC this week, has already earned a chapter in the TV history books. Its overall rating last season -- 34.9, representing 63 million viewers -- was not just its best in three seasons but the best for any TV series since Bonanza in 1964-65. The show's success has created its own bonanza on the syndication market: Cosby Show reruns, currently being sold to local stations, have earned a record-smashing $600 million, and the total could eventually top $1 billion; a third of that will go to Cosby himself. Meanwhile a Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World (starring Lisa Bonet as Cosby's TV daughter Denise, now off at college), debuts this week on NBC. With the coveted time slot following Cosby on Thursday nights, it could easily be another huge hit.

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