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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Though Cosby's comedy was color-blind, the comedian was not. In 1964, when Producer Sheldon Leonard invited him to audition for a role in a new TV series called I Spy, Cosby struck Co-Star Robert Culp as the "angriest young man I'd ever met." Cosby does not dispute the characterization. "You have to remember the times. It wasn't so much because of any racism directed against me. It was because of the March on Washington and how the press tried to ignore it, and the Red-baiting going on. I felt that my country had betrayed its black citizens." He got the role nonetheless -- the first black actor to co-star in a network dramatic series. The event was a Jackie Robinson-like breakthrough. "I remember being totally overjoyed about it," recalls Actor Robert Guillaume. "When Cosby hit, it was like a Second Coming." Cosby went on to win three Emmys for his performances; he and Culp have remained friends ever since.

I Spy was canceled in 1968 after three seasons, and Cosby's TV career took a long time to recover. He starred as a high school gym teacher in The Bill Cosby Show, an engaging series that was nevertheless canceled after two seasons. A comedy-variety series called The New Bill Cosby Show lasted only one; another effort, Cos, failed in less than two months. Cosby landed a few movie roles in such films as Uptown Saturday Night, California Suite and Hickey and Boggs (a rare and surprisingly effective dramatic performance). But his film career failed to ignite. Cosby refuses to characterize the time as a career slump but admits it was a "period when I was being ignored by some people."

Two groups of people, however, were not ignoring him at all. Children, for one, seemed to love him. While struggling in prime time, Cosby became a frequent guest on The Electric Company and Sesame Street, and created the critically acclaimed Saturday-morning cartoon series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. His other major fans were advertising executives. Attracted by his rapport with children, Jell-O hired Cosby in 1974 for a series of commercials in which he talked and mugged with youngsters eating Jell-O pudding. He was soon in demand for other TV spots, hawking products for Ford, Texas Instruments and Coca-Cola, among others. His latest client, E.F. Hutton, reportedly paid him more than $5 million for a long-term deal. "The advertising business was looking for universality that shatters the color image," says Fred Danzig, editor of Advertising Age. "Cosby does that."

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