Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby, PBS Pioneers of TelevisionActor and activist Bill Cosby cut his teeth as a comedian who got his start in television as one half of a groundbreaking duo on the crime drama, “I Spy.” Cosby and co-star Robert Culp quietly changed the dynamics of television when they portrayed two spies — one white, the other African-American — who masqueraded as a tennis pro and his mentor.

“I Spy” was the first time America saw an interracial pairing on television in which both characters were cast as equals. The two actors decided early in the 1965 premiere season that they would make a statement about race relations by not addressing the groundbreaking casting choice at all. Cosby and Culp would portray a world where ethnicity wasn’t a factor.

“[Cosby] came in and he said, ‘Listen, our television series is a statement by being a non-statement,’” remembers Culp. “I said ‘Done,’ and we shook hands on it and we never talked about it again.”

While Cosby struggled with his acting technique in the first few episodes, he soon hit his stride, and the on-screen chemistry and naturally funny banter between Culp and Cosby resonated with the American public. “I Spy” also relied on filming in exotic locales — including Venice, Tokyo and Madrid — to keep the show fresh and interesting.

Cosby Focuses on Education

Cosby went on to make a name for himself in children’s television programming, becoming a regular cast member on “The Electric Company,” an educational program aimed at elementary school children. In 1971, Cosby developed and debuted an animated children’s program, “Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids.” This pioneering program showcased a cast of inner-city kids who used imagination to deal creatively with the challenges of childhood. The result was a hit show with a powerful message.

“I wanted to take just the opposite … of what heroes look like. [The lead character in Cosby’s animated show] ‘Fat Albert’ was thought to be this laughing, joking, very kind of shy person who was … thought to be … dumb because he was fat, because he was slow. I’m talking about the stereotype here: Because he was fat, he could not do anything; because he was fat, he was in the way during athletic events, clumsy and fell down. So that was ‘Fat Albert’ … We put him there and made him the leader of the group; brought out that he was the intelligent fellow and kept the gang together. We put all these guys together and used them to solve problems with a great deal of love and care and intelligence.”

Cosby had another television mega-hit in the 1980s when he created and starred in “The Cosby Show,” a situation comedy about an affluent African-American family. The show paved the way for a series of shows that featured minorities in lead roles, including “A Different World” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Cosby has varied interests in jazz music and education, and earned a doctorate of education from the University of Massachusetts in 1976. The actor wrote his dissertation on the educational uses of children’s television, with a special focus on his show, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” Today, Cosby continues to advocate for children’s education.