"I don't know the key to success," says Bill Cosby. "But the key to failure is trying to please everybody." And for a boy who rose from the projects to become one of America's highest-paid TV personalities reportedly worth $325 million in 1995 actor, comedian, author, producer and composer Bill is someone who should know.
He was born William Henry Cosby Junior, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 12, 1937. His welder father, William Senior, abandoned the family while Bill was still a child leaving the youngster to raise his younger brothers, Bob and Russell, while their mother Anne found work as a domestic.
After a four-year stint as a Navy medical corpsman during which time he completed his High School education Bill won an athletic scholarship to Temple University in his hometown. There, he excelled at high jump and football but dropped out of academia after his comedy career started to take off. He returned at a later date, however, completing a BA and going on to earn an MA and a PhD in Education.
Bill launched his comic career while still in the military in the late-1950s, and was an immediate hit. He debuted as a stand-up at Philadelphia's The Underground Club and by 1962 had landed a summer booking at New York City's prestigious Gaslight Café. A year later he released his first comedy album, Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow, Right!, which received a 1963 Grammy nomination. For the rest of the decade he dominated the category, winning six consecutive Grammys in the late Sixties.
His first foray into acting came opposite Robert Culp in the 1960s TV show I Spy, for which he scooped three successive Emmy Awards as Outstanding Lead in a Dramatic Series. From then on, Bill was a regular fixture on the small screen. He had his own programme, The Bill Cosby Show, and also appeared in specials, variety series and the animated effort Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids. He will probably be best remembered, however, as the calm and loving dad in The Cosby Show (1984-1992). The programme debuted at a time when TV pundits were predicting the death of situation comedies, but its phenomenal success was credited with helping save the genre.
On the big screen, however, Bill has found it harder to make a mark. He starred in three popular comedy films opposite Sidney Poitier in the 1970s Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again and A Piece Of the Action and teamed up with Richard Pryor in California Suite. But major cinematic success has always eluded him.
The comedian rose to fame at the height of the Civil Rights movement and has done much to advance the role of blacks in the entertainment industry. Refusing to do purely racial comedy, he instead favoured commentary based on universal family situations and drew much of his material from his personal experiences growing up.
When Bill and wife Camille had their own kids, these too provided fodder for an endless stream of anecdotes on raising children. Tragedy was to strike, however, when their son Ennis a dyslexic who had dedicated himself to helping others overcome similar disabilities was found shot to death on January 16, 1997. "He was my hero," said Bill simply.
Following Ennis's death he plunged himself back into comedy with a new show and a simultaneous hosting stint. "You can turn painful situations around through laughter," he says. "If you can find humour in anything, even poverty, you can survive it."