Was The Cosby Show as Wholesome As It Tried to Seem?

The Cosby Show marked a turning point in how Black Americans were represented on TV. When it first aired, The Cosby Show broke major barriers and redefined what a sitcom was. It earned numerous nominations and awards for its delivery and unique premise. The show and its leading man (of course) have gained attention in recent years, but Bill Cosby wasn’t the only one with details kept in the dark.

Bill Cosby / Keshia Knight Pulliam, Tempestt Bledsoe, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner / The cast of The Cosby Show.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: NBC

During its eight total seasons (which ran from 1984 to 1992), the cast was involved in arguments and controversies of their own. New actors joined because cast members didn’t get along, while others joined because of debates with producers over important issues. Let’s take a look at the behind-the-scenes facts of the show and what the cast members went through…

No More Kids Smart Mouthing Their Parents

When it came time to pitch his show, Bill Cosby considered the fact that he wasn’t pleased with the so-called “family” sitcoms that were being aired on TV during the early 1980s. The kids on those shows seemed to be in charge of the household, and 6-year-olds would be smart-mouthing their parents without any repercussions.

A little boy and girl are talking back to Bill Cosby on the set of ‘The Cosby Show’.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: NBC

Cosby wasn’t having it. So, he sketched out a show where the kids were intelligent, but their parents were always smarter and in charge. In his original pitch, his character Cliff Huxtable was a limousine driver, and Clair Huxtable was a union plumber. His real-life wife, Camille Cosby, told her husband that she thought the TV couple should be more like their own family.

A Reverse I Love Lucy Scenario

Camille suggested to her husband that the show should be more or less about them in their real-life roles as white-collar professional parents. Executive producer Marcy Carsey agreed with Camille, and so Cosby made the dad a doctor and the mom an attorney.

Bill Cosby, as Heathcliff Huxtable, sitting on the couch beside Phylicia Rashad, as Clair Huxtable.
Source: Reddit

Another one of Cosby’s early ideas for the show was for Clair to be Dominican so that she would be able to revert to her native Spanish whenever she got frustrated. The way he saw it, it would be like a reverse I Love Lucy scenario, where the audience would always know when Ricky Ricardo reached his limit because he would suddenly burst into a Spanish rant.

The Studio Audience’s Reaction to the Pilot

The show’s pilot was filmed in front of a live audience, and although there were lots of laughs where expected, Cosby was still worried that the audience wasn’t really getting his overall vision of the show. In the pilot, during the scene where Theo is defending the “D” on his report card, he tells his dad something that the audience unexpectedly applauded.

A live audience sits in front of The Cosby Show set.
Source: Pinterest

He told his TV dad: “If you weren’t a doctor, I wouldn’t love you less because you’re my dad. So, rather than feeling disappointed because I’m not like you, maybe you should accept who I am and love me anyway because I’m your son.”

How the Pilot Differed

At that moment, there was spontaneous applause from the audience, which apparently concerned Cosby. The audience then reacted even more enthusiastically when Cosby replied with complete conviction: “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”

Cosby talking to his four kids who are sitting at the kitchen table.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: NBC

It happens more often than not when elements of a series differ from the pilot once it gets picked up by a network. In the pilot, the layout of the Huxtable home was nothing like 10 Stigwood Avenue, the home we came to know. Theo was also referred to as “Teddy.” Oh, and in the pilot, there were four Huxtable children.

Adding a Fifth Huxtable Kid

At one point in the pilot, Clair asks her husband, “Why did we have four children?” He responded with, “Because we didn’t want five.” In the original plotline, Denise was the eldest, followed by Theo, Vanessa, and then Rudy.

Sabrina Le Beauf and Geoffrey Owens on the set of The Cosby Show.
Source: Pinterest

However, once the series was picked up and showed potential to become a real hit, Cosby decided to add an additional older kid to the family bunch. That fifth kid was the one who was away at college – an example of successful parenting, in his opinion. That’s where Princeton student Sondra, the eldest Huxtable, came in.

Rudy Was Almost Played by Family Matters’ Urkel

In Cosby’s original vision, the Huxtables had two boys and two girls (before Sondra was added to the bunch). The youngest, Rudy, was supposed to be a younger brother who looked up to Theo. Remember Family Matters’ Urkel? Well, the actor Jaleel White auditioned for the role when he was eight years old.

Jaleel White, as Steve Urkel, is sitting on the couch on the set of ‘Family Matters’
Source: Moviestilldb.com / Copyright: ABC

His audition went so well that his agent told his parents that they should go ahead and start looking for places to live in New York, where The Cosby Show was being filmed. In other words, it seemed like a done deal.

It Just Had to Be Given to Keshia

But the producers still had a few more child actors to consider, and one of those last-minute reads was with four-year-old Keshia Knight-Pulliam. The show’s director, Jay Sandrich, recalled talking to Keshia and asking her if she could remember the lines from the script.

Keshia Knight-Pulliam is sitting at the table on the set of the show dressed like a grown-up.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: NBC

Yet, she kept looking away from him. So, he asked her what was wrong. As the story goes, she pointed to the monitor and said, “That’s me! How can you make me on the TV?” The room was enchanted, and Sandrich moved the little girl’s name to the top of the list. Thus, Theo became an only son surrounded by four sisters.

Sabrina Le Beauf Was Embarrassed by the Show

The Cosby Show became a groundbreaking venture for not only the cast members but viewers at home. But it’s not always easy to recognize that you’re making history when you’re in it. When Sabrina Le Beauf signed on to play Sondra Huxtable, she didn’t feel content with the role.

The cast of The Cosby Show takes a group “family” photo.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: NBC

Reportedly, she was even embarrassed by the show. She said she felt that she was selling herself short and cheating the viewers: “Working in television, you do not have the opportunity most times to do what you are capable of doing.” After having been on the show for five years, she felt “cheated that 55 million people a week watch something that is not my best work.”

Lisa Bonet Just Didn’t Get Along With Cosby

Other castmates had feelings about the show that they kept to themselves, which nonetheless affected their performances and their experience. In Lisa Bonet’s case, she just couldn’t bring herself to get along with Bill Cosby.

Lisa Bonet and Bill Cosby going over the script on set.
Source: Pinterest

She claims that he carried something threatening underneath the surface, long before the crimes he committed ever came to light. “There was no knowledge on my part about his specific actions, but… There was just energy.” She referred to his energy as a type of “sinister, shadow energy” that can’t be “concealed.” But it looks like Bonet had some secrets of her own…

Lisa Bonet’s Scandalous Film

Bonet raised a few eyebrows herself. Her character Denise was the wild child in the Huxtable household. She always wore the crazier clothes and dated boys she knew her father couldn’t stand. There were times when Bonet rebelled off-screen and tried Cosby’s patience even more than her character did.

Lisa Bonet on the set of The Cosby Show as Denise Huxtable.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: NBC

She was reportedly often late for tapings, and sometimes she didn’t bother to show up at all. There came a turning point for both the actress and her character in 1986 when 19-year-old Bonet decided to spend her hiatus co-starring in the promiscuous film Angel Heart.

The Reason for the Spin-off A Different World

Angel Heart had to edit many scenes in order to avoid an X rating. Topless photos of Bonet were leaked to the media as a means of promoting the film. It became an issue for The Cosby Show, and Cosby had her younger TV siblings to consider.

Marisa Tomei, Dawnn Lewis and Lisa Bonet filming ‘A Different World’.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: NBC

According to all the fan mail the show received, it seemed as though Denise was the most popular Huxtable. So, Cosby wasn’t going to simply get rid of the character. Instead, he solved the problem by spinning Denise off into a series set at Hillman College called A Different World.

Baby Bumps in the Cosby Road

Another actress on the show had to deal with Cosby’s strict rules. Cosby didn’t want to add any babies to the series, so when Phylicia Rashad (who played Clair) became pregnant during Season Three, the team had to go to lengths to conceal Rashad’s growing baby bump.

Phylicia Rashad lying in bed with multiple covers hiding her baby bump.
Source: Twitter

That’s the reason why Clair was either conveniently away at a conference or confined to her bed. The bed had a custom mattress that was scooped out under her bottom so her tummy wouldn’t make the covers protrude. That bed, however, caused a pinched nerve in her back.

Rashad’s Stare Got Her the Role

The ordeal became bizarre, like in the episode titled “Vanessa’s Rich,” we see Clair sitting on the living room sofa with a huge teddy bear in front of her, with no reason whatsoever provided. Cosby wasn’t going to fire her, though, as he really wanted Rashad on the show.

Phylicia Rashad sitting on the couch with a large size teddy bear blocking most of her body.
Source: Reddit

In fact, of all the actresses who auditioned for Clair, Rashad caught Cosby’s eye because of how she argued with Theo during the screen test. Unlike the other candidates before her, she didn’t wag her head or place her hand on her hip. She simply stopped speaking and gave Theo a threatening look. That stare is what landed her the role.

Pregnancy Problem #2

In November of 1987, Lisa Bonet eloped with musician Lenny Kravitz. By early 1988, she announced that she was pregnant. At this point, she was playing a college student, and a pregnant college freshman was not exactly what the producers of A Different World were looking for. So, Bonet was fired from the show. She was, however, rehired on The Cosby Show for Season Five.

Lisa Bonet wearing an oversized shirt to cover her pregnancy while filming The Cosby Show.
Source: Pinterest

Of course, she was still pregnant, and the crew had to figure out how to conceal the pregnancy, as they did with Rashad. Bonet was outfitted in oversized jackets and loose-fitting shirts until Episode Five of that season, when she was given permission by Cliff and Clair to go with a photographer to Zaire for an extended assignment.

The Legacy of the Cosby Sweaters

Whether you loved or hated Cliff Huxtable’s sweaters, you have to admit that they became quite iconic. Those sweaters were the work of Dutch fashion designer Koos Van Den Akker, who was asked by a customer of his in the early ‘80s to make a unique sweater as a gift for her friend, Bill Cosby.

Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show set in a crazy multicolored green sweater.
Source: LA Times

Cosby wore that specific sweater on camera while filming one episode. Sure enough, fan mail poured in as people wanted to know where they could buy a similar sweater. Cosby asked Van Den Akker to make more, and thus a legacy was born.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner Wasn’t Meant to Be Picked

The casting call for the part of Theo indicated that he should be 6’2” and 15 years old. Malcolm-Jamal Warner, though, was 13 and 5’5” – quite different from the specified role. Still, he managed to get an audition on the very last day that auditions were held.

Theo Huxtable, played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner, is sitting on the couch while talking on the phone.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: NBC

According to Warner, he read the lines for the Monopoly money scene with Cosby like a traditional TV brat, you know, with the hand on the hip, the eyes rolling, etc. Everyone in the room was laughing… except for Cosby. He asked Warner if he would act like that with his real father. Warner took the comment to heart, read the part a second time, and nailed it.

It Really Was “Back to School”

Season Seven began with a “back to school” episode in which Cliff and Clair happily lead their kids out the door after summer vacation ends. But Vanessa, played by Tempestt Bledsoe, was carrying a suitcase instead of a backpack, which revealed that Vanessa went to summer school in order to graduate a year early and thus head for Lincoln College in Pennsylvania.

Bill Cosby talks over a scene with Tempestt Bledsoe on the set of the
Photo by Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis/Getty Images

The sudden change in Vanessa’s story arc was because of Bledsoe’s desire to get her actual degree and Cosby’s determination to help her. Bledsoe had enrolled at New York University but would be taking evening classes so it wouldn’t affect her work schedule. Instead, Cosby arranged the show’s shooting schedule so she could go to school full-time. Tempestt remembers Cosby posting her grades on his dressing room door.

Grandpa Huxtable Was an Accomplished Thespian

Russell Huxtable was the man to rely on for Shakespeare quotes when wise man advice was needed in the show. And those scenes were tailored for Earle Hyman, who played Cliff’s dad. Hyman, from the age of 13, absolutely loved classic literature and stage plays.

Bill Cosby pretending to try and hurt Earle Hyman, who plays his father on The Bill Cosby Show.
Source: Reddit

He particularly liked the work of Henrik Ibsen, and he spent enough time in Norway at Ibsen’s home to become fluent in Norwegian. Hyman actually earned the prestigious Medal of St. Olav for his stage work there.

Fun fact: Hyman was also the voice of Panthro in Thunder Cats.

Peter’s “Red Light Fever”

In most cases, stage fright can really put an end to a child actor’s career. But when it came to The Cosby Show, Cosby decided to capitalize on the fear experienced by Peter Costa, who played the Huxtables’ neighbor.

Peter Costa on The Cosby Show looking a little scared and shy.
Source: Twitter

Costa reportedly had trouble reciting his lines due to what is called “red light fever,” which happens once the cameras start rolling. Cosby cast him as Rudy’s friend Peter who lived across the street. That way, he rarely spoke to anyone, especially the adults. Yet Rudy always “understood” him, a lot like regular kids do with the friends that confuse their parents.

Lisa Bonet (Denise Huxtable-Kendall)

Denise was always the most controversial and talked-about Huxtable child, both as her character and as Lisa Bonet off-screen. Bonet is full of surprises. In recent years, she’s made guest appearances on different kinds of series, including New Girl, Girls, and Ray Donovan.

Jason Momoa and Lisa Bonet attend the Tom Ford AW20 Show.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

In her personal life, she covers a lot of exciting ground as well. In 1987, the 20-year-old Bonet married Lenny Kravitz and gave birth to their daughter – the now bonafide star Zoë Kravitz. Although the Kravitz marriage dissolved in 1993, Bonet married Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones in 2007. Together, the couple has a daughter named Lola Iolani and a son named Nakoa-Wolf.

Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa Huxtable)

If Denise was the rebel in the Huxtable household, then Vanessa was the typical “annoying” sitcom child. She was prone to tantrums and acting out and basically displayed all the hallmarks of “Middle TV Child Syndrome” without actually being the middle child.

Tempestt Bledsoe arrives at the 2013 Visual Effects Society Awards.
Photo by Allen Berezovsky/WireImage/Getty Images

After The Cosby Show wrapped in 1992, Bledsoe continued to work steadily. Her wide-ranging resume includes guest appearances on shows like The Practice, The Parkers, South of Nowhere, and the cartoon series The Replacements.

Fun fact: Bledsoe has been in a relationship with Darryl M. Bell, who starred on the spin-off series A Different World, for the past 25 years.

Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy Huxtable)

The youngest and most adorable member of the Huxtable fam jam was Rudy Huxtable, who stole the audience’s hearts. The character was so beloved that Knight Pulliam received the honor of being the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Emmy for the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series when she was only six years old!

Keshia Knight Pulliam attends Tyler Perry Studios Grand Opening Gala.
Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images

Since then, she’s had lead roles in shows like Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and movies like Madea Goes to Jail. She married former football player Edgerton Hartwell in 2016, and while the couple is in the midst of a divorce, Pulliam welcomed her first child, Ella Grace, in 2017.

Adam Sandler (Smitty)

Okay, he only appeared in a handful of episodes in the fourth season, but still, Smitty was a key part of Theo’s group of friends. Some of Smitty’s ideas led to some of the group’s worst experiences, like the time they all decided to rent a helicopter for prom night. The character also marked Sandler’s first on-screen role.

A young Adam Sandler as Smitty is sitting on the Cosby’s couch.
Source: Reddit

Of course, we saw Sandler go on to become a huge name in comedy, with a five-year stint on Saturday Night Live and a catalog of movies, including Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy, Grown Ups, and so much more.

Sabrina La Beauf (Sondra Huxtable-Tibideaux)

The eldest of the Huxtable kids, Sondra was more often than not the epitome of responsibility. An intelligent and aspiring lawyer, a Princeton graduate, and the mother of twins Winnie and Nelson, she was the least focused on in the Huxtable family, probably since her life was so put together.

Sabrina La Beauf on ‘Star Trek: The Next Génération’
Source: Pinterest

As Sondra moved from career to career over the course of the series, so did actress Sabrina Le Beauf who played the character. She’s had an expansive career in different fields. She’s made appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the cartoon series Fatherhood. According to her Twitter bio, she’s an interior designer who lives in Maui.

Geoffrey Owens (Elvin Tibideaux)

Sondra’s lovable but dumb husband Elvin was a source of frustration and comic relief during his entire run on the series. As he was openly misogynistic, it led him into conflict with the feminist Clair on many occasions.

Geoffrey Owens at STARZ Madison Square Garden
Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Owens has a lengthy list of films under his belt with guest-starring roles in Law & Order, That’s So Raven, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Lucifer. A graduate of Yale, he also built a career as an esteemed Broadway actor. He also staged and directed many plays, taught at Yale, and currently teaches Shakespeare-focused workshops.

Who Played Bud on The Cosby Show?

Sometimes, good things really do come in small packages. Just look at The Cosby Show’s Kenny, aka “Bud.” He was one of the show’s standout characters, whose comedic timing and manner of speaking has stood the test of time. As Rudy’s best friend, Bud is larger than life in every way other than physically.

Deon Richmond arrives at Starz Home Entertainment's
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

After his tenure as Bud, Richmond went on to star in the brief sitcom Getting By before landing the role of Jordan Bennett in Sister, Sister. He’s also been in teen movies like Scream 3, Not Another Teen Movie, and Van Wilder: Party Liaison. As of 2009, he’s a dad to twin girls Lilac Jewel and Leone Jade.

Earle Hyman (Russell Huxtable)

In his 40 appearances on The Cosby Show, Cliff’s father Russell provided gentlemanly seriousness and grandfatherly warmth. A talented jazz musician and war veteran, Russell and his wife Anna were lovingly critical of their son and devoted to each and every one of their grandchildren.

Earle Hyman attends the 54th Annual Village Voice Obie Awards.
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Earle Hyman passed away in 2017, but he lived a respected life as a Tony-nominated and Emmy-nominated star in both Hollywood and Broadway, in a career spanning over 50 years. In 2014, during an interview with Jet Magazine, the 90-year-old described his status as a working actor simply: “You never retire. Acting is in my blood.”

Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo Huxtable)

The Huxtable kid with the greatest development over the entire series was probably Theo Huxtable, who began Season One as the stereotypical teen slacker. But, by the end of the series, he was a college graduate prepared to embark on a career in psychology.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner on the TV show Community wearing a classic Cosby sweater.
Source: Pinterest

Since the show ended, Malcolm-Jamal Warner has remained a constant presence on our TV screens with starring roles on Malcolm & Eddie, Listen Up, and Reed Between the Lines. He’s also landed recurring roles on Community, Major Crimes, Suits, and The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

Erika Alexander (Pam Tucker)

It’s never easy to write in character for the obvious purpose of replacing a character who has left the show for good. The Cosby Show faced this problem with Cousin Pam Tucker. She was introduced in the seventh season as a relative of Clair’s who comes from a non-normative family.

Erika Alexander attends the screening of
Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic/Getty Images

It was an attempt for the show to keep up with youth politics of the time, but it didn’t work. Pam’s controversial reception didn’t affect Erika Alexander’s career at all, though. She went on to star as Maxine Shaw in Living Single from 1993 to 1998. She was also in the movies The Long Walk Home, Love Liza, and Get Out.

Peter Costa (Peter Chiara)

In the early seasons of The Cosby Show, Rudy’s best friend was the shy and mischievous neighbor Peter. With memorable shenanigans, like the time the two ruined Cliff’s juicer, the laid-back Peter stood out as a perfect opposite to Rudy’s charm.

A photo of Peter Costa.
Source: Tumblr

According to IMDb, Costa didn’t continue with his career beyond his 13 episodes on the show. In addition to playing himself in The Flamingo Kid and The Cosby Show: A Look Back, his two other credits are 1989’s The Lemon Sisters and 2003’s To Be Legendary. Costa has been a drummer for New Jersey-based metal and experimental bands, including Torrential Downpour and the Kreptatka Bar Band.

Carl Anthony Payne II (Walter “Cockroach” Bradley)

For 12 episodes, from the second to fourth seasons, Walter “Cockroach” Bradley was Theo’s best bud and partner in crime. The two produced raps for school assignments, concocted schemes to win over girls, and even fought about who could appear on the show Dance Mania.

Carl Anthony Payne II attends the
Photo by Chad Buchanan/Getty Images

Apparently, Carl Anthony Payne II got into a disagreement with Cosby regarding Payne’s appearance and longer hair, which resulted in the character being written out of the show without a word. Payne eventually got a starring role in the sitcom Martin. He also worked in stand-up comedy, directing, producing, and hosting acting workshops.

Raven Symoné (Olivia Kendall)

It sometimes happens when the youngest and cutest child star develops out of their adorable stage to become a more annoying child star. Enter Olivia Kendall, Denise’s stepdaughter from her marriage to Martin Kendall. Olivia frequently bickered with Cliff, which made for an amusing yet often irritating dynamic.

Raven-Symone attends Tribeca Celebrates Pride Day.
Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Still, there’s no denying Olivia showed audiences an early glimpse of Raven-Symoné’s comedic talent. After Cosby, Raven had prominent roles in Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and Kim Possible. She then made herself a household name with That’s So Raven. Now, she’s starring in the spin-off series Raven’s Home on Disney Channel.

Phylicia Rashad (Clair Huxtable)

Clair Huxtable is still seen as one of the best sitcom moms of all time. The hard-working, intelligent, affectionate, and always in control Clair was the pinnacle of motherly warmth. Never afraid to speak her mind, she led the household better than Cliff ever could.

Phylicia Rashad attends the premiere of Tyler Perry's
Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

A three-time Emmy nominee, Phylicia Rashad’s resume goes beyond her role as Clair Huxtable. Rashad has a rich history in the theater. In 2004, she won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for being Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun.

Bill Cosby (Cliff Huxtable)

Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable was the fun-loving father everyone wished they had. From 1994/1995, Cosby starred in The Cosby Mysteries, followed by Cosby from 1996 to 2000. He hosted Kids Say the Darnedest Things and created Little Bill for Nickelodeon. Of course, after the news of his dark secrets, it’s hard to look back at his characters with fondness.

Bill Cosby arrives for sentencing.
Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

Since the 2010s, many women have come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct. He has been sentenced to three to 10 years in prison. To many people, that’s simply not long enough. Unfortunately, the justice system itself needs some work.

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