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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Everything Cosby touches these days seems to turn to gold, if not platinum. Enjoying the highest Q rating in history (the definitive show-biz gauge of audience appeal), Cosby has long been one of TV's most sought-after commercial pitchmen; he currently does ads for Jell-O, Kodak and E.F. Hutton. His stand- up performances draw packed crowds everywhere, from the showrooms of Las Vegas to Radio City Music Hall. (His going rate for one-nighters: $250,000.) A videocassette, Bill Cosby: 49, sponsored by Kodak and produced by Cosby's wife Camille, has sold 200,000 copies so far, more than any other concert video yet released. His first feature film in six years, a James Bond-esque spy caper called Leonard Part 6, will appear in theaters around Christmas, and he plans to start shooting another movie in the spring.

And now comes Cosby the publishing phenom. Three years ago Paul Bresnick, a senior editor at Doubleday and newly expectant father, came up with the idea for a book about being a dad. After his first two choices to write it were "thankfully not available," Bresnick approached Cosby, whose NBC series was just starting to take off. The result was Fatherhood, a collection of humorous anecdotes and observations, which spent more than a year on the best- seller list and sold 2.6 million hard-cover copies, edging past Iacocca to set a modern-day record. Naturally, that called for a sequel. Time Flies, a lighthearted look at the woes of growing older, has just arrived in stores with a huge first printing of 1.75 million copies -- yes, another record.

Clearly, Bill Cosby is more than a show-biz success story; he is a force in the national culture. Like Ronald Reagan, another entertainer with a warm, fatherly image who peaked relatively late in life, Cosby purveys a message of optimism and traditional family values. At a time when real-life families are weathering problems of drugs and divorce, the Huxtable clan on The Cosby Show is the very model of a strong, close-knit, parent-dominated unit. The fact that the family is black, without making a particular point of it, is an encouraging sign of maturity in matters of race. For whites as well as blacks, The Cosby Show is a weekly source of comfort and wisdom. "I hear white working-class families quoting The Cosby Show as though it were the last church sermon they heard," says Harvard Psychiatrist Robert Coles. "It's a pastoral quality."

This pastor, however, is a man of sometimes jarring contradictions. Onstage he comes across as an average guy commiserating about the little trials that face us all; yet, with earnings estimated at $57 million this year, he makes more money than any other entertainer on the globe. He is TV's best-loved family man, yet he firmly shields his own wife and five children from publicity. He shies away from the praise of peers by refusing to accept Emmy nominations; yet he flaunts his doctor's degree in education, earned at age 39. As a performer, he radiates childlike charm and clownish exuberance; with co-workers, he can be demanding and difficult (see following story).

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