Bill Cosby was not pleased with the so-called “family” sitcoms he saw on TV in the early 1980s. The kids seemed to be in charge of the household and tiny 6-year-olds were smart-mouthing their parents without suffering any repercussions. Cosby sketched out a show where the kids were certainly intelligent, but their parents were always smarter and—most importantly—in charge. The Cosby Show debuted on September 20, 1984, and America went on to spend eight memorable seasons with the Huxtables.
In Bill Cosby’s original pitch, he played a limousine driver, and Clair was a union plumber. Camille Cosby told her husband that she thought the TV couple should be more representative of their own family—two white-collar professional parents. When executive producer Marcy Carsey sided with Camille, Cosby capitulated and made the patriarch a doctor and Clair an attorney.
Another one of Cosby’s early visions of the show was for Clair to be Dominican, and to have her revert to her native Spanish whenever she was frustrated. He pictured it as a reverse I Love Lucy scenario, where the audience always knew when Ricky Ricardo had reached his limit because he’d burst into a Spanish-language tirade.
Of all the actresses who auditioned for the role of Clair, Phylicia Rashad caught Cosby’s eye because of the way she argued with Theo during the screen test. Unlike the previous candidates, she didn’t wag her head and she didn’t place her hand on her hip. Instead, she simply stopped speaking and gave Theo a look—and her eyes said enough to frighten any child into submission. Cosby knew immediately that Phylicia was Clair.
The Cosby Show‘s pilot was filmed in front of a live audience, and even though there were plenty of laughs where expected, Cosby was worried that the audience wasn’t embracing his overall vision of the series. In the scene where Theo is defending the “D” on his report card, he earnestly tells his 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.”
What concerned Cosby about this scene was the spontaneous applause from the audience after Theo’s speech. Luckily the audience reacted even more enthusiastically when he replied with complete conviction, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”
Cliff Huxtable’s iconic sweaters were the work of Dutch fashion designer Koos Van Den Akker. Van Den Akker was asked by an customer of his in the early 1980s to make a unique sweater as a present for her friend, Bill Cosby. Cosby wore that sweater on camera while filming an episode of his show. Mail poured in as viewers wanted to know where they could buy a similar garment.
Cosby asked Van Den Akker to make more, and a legacy was born. The sweaters’ designer described the process of creating each pullover as a “painting,” throwing various colors and patterns of fabric pieces together on a jersey/wool blend canvas. According to Van Den Akker, each design tread a “very thin line between absolutely awful and something of genius.”
At one point in the pilot, Clair asks, “Why did we have four children?” He responds, “Because we didn’t want five.” Originally, Denise was the oldest of the offspring, followed by Theo, Vanessa, and Rudy. But once the series was poised to become a hit, Bill Cosby decided to add an additional older child—one who was away at college and was an example of successful parenting. Enter Princeton student Sondra, the eldest Huxtable child.
Sabrina LeBeauf, the actress who played Sondra, is only 10 years younger than her TV mom. Sabrina won the role over such staunch competitors as Whitney Houston and future Miss America Suzette Charles. LeBeauf impressed Cosby partly because she had recently graduated from a prestigious university (Yale), just like the character he had in mind.
The Cosby Show not only topped the ratings charts at home, it was also a hit internationally—albeit with some minor tweaks made for non-U.S. audiences. For example, in Italy, the surname “Huxtable” proved to be impossible to pronounce, so the family’s name was changed and the show was titled I Robinson (“The Robinsons”) in Italy. Why “Robinson” instead of, say, Smith or Jones? The name was chosen in honor of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball.
In Bill Cosby’s original vision, the Huxtables had two boys and two girls (this was before Sondra was added to the mix). The youngest child, Rudy, was originally supposed to be a younger brother who looked up to Theo. Eight-year-old Jaleel White (Family Matters’ future Urkel) had auditioned so strongly that his agent told his parents that they should start looking for apartments in New York, where The Cosby Show was filmed.
The producers still had a few more kids to consider, and one of those last-minute interviews was with four-year-old charmer Keshia Knight-Pulliam. Director Jay Sandrich recalled trying to talk to Keshia, asking her if she could remember lines, but she kept looking away from him. He finally asked her what was wrong. The story goes that she pointed to a monitor and said, “That’s me! How can you make me on the TV?” Immediately enchanted, Sandrich moved Keshia’s name to the top of the short list, and Theo became an only son surrounded by four sisters.
The casting call for the role of Theo specified that he was 6’2″ and 15 years old. Malcolm-Jamal Warner, however, was 13 and 5’5″. Nevertheless, he landed an interview on the last day auditions were held. According to Warner, he read the Monopoly money scene with Cosby like a traditional TV brat—hand on hip, eyes rolled, a real smart-aleck. Everyone in the room was laughing … except for Cosby. He asked the young actor if he’d act like that with his real father. With that advice in mind, Warner read for the part a second time and nailed it.
Season 7 begins with a “back to school” episode where Cliff and Clair happily usher their brood out the door the morning after summer vacation ended. But why was Vanessa carrying a suitcase instead of a Trapper Keeper? It’s revealed that Vanessa attended summer school so she could graduate a year early, and was now bound for Lincoln College in Pennsylvania. The sudden change in Vanessa’s story arc was due to Tempestt Bledsoe’s desire to get her degree, and Cosby’s determination to help her however possible.
After graduating from high school, Bledsoe told her boss that she’d enrolled at New York University but would be attending classes in the evenings and on weekends so it wouldn’t affect her work schedule. Cosby instead arranged the show’s shooting schedule so that Bledsoe could go to school full-time, which is why we only saw Vanessa sporadically throughout the season. Tempestt recalls that Cosby used to post her grades on his dressing room door.
It is common for some elements of a series to differ from the pilot once it’s picked up by a network. So it is understandable that in the Cosby pilot, the layout of the house is nothing like the 10 Stigwood Avenue we later see, and Theo is referred to as “Teddy.” But surely someone in the editing room should have noticed that the establishing exterior shot of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable’s office that was used several times throughout Season One still bore the pilot-engraved nameplate that read “Clifford Huxtable, M.D.”
Russell Huxtable could always be relied upon to recite Shakespeare at length when sage advice was required. These scenes were tailored specifically for Earle Hyman, who played Cliff’s dad. From the age of 13, Hyman devoured classic literature and stage plays.He developed a particular fondness for the work of Henrik Ibsen, and Hyman eventually spent enough time in Norway (Ibsen’s home) to become fluent in Norwegian and was awarded the prestigious Medal of St. Olav for his stage work there.
There’s your ThunderCats connection.
Bill Cosby incorporated many names from his own real-life family into his sitcom relatives. He married Camille Olivia Hanks in 1964. In the show, Clair Huxtable’s maiden name was “Hanks,” and Denise’s precocious stepdaughter was named Olivia. His mother’s name was Anna, just like his TV mom. His younger brother Russell lent his name to the Huxtable granddad.
Even today, whenever Malcolm-Jamal Warner attends a formal event, there’s always one wise guy who will ask him if he’s wearing Gordon Gartrelle. Theo’s lopsided yellow satin shirt with the two-tone pockets has become indelibly entwined with garish, ill-fitting couture. The original garment recently got a nod in an episode of Suburgatory, when George and Noah were sifting through boxes of old clothes in the attic. (“Are you kidding me?! It’s a Gordon Gartrelle. Keep!”) The real Gordon G. Gartrelle, by the way, was a writer and producer on the Cosby series.
The Cosby Show was famous for changing its opening credits sequence every season. Season Five’s opening is unique because it is the only time throughout the series’ run that the entire cast is shown dancing together. The music was performed by the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, and the choreography was courtesy of Trinidadian-born actor, dancer, director and singer Geoffrey Holder. Many Baby Boomers remember Holder as the “Uncola Man” spokesman for 7-Up.
Denise was the Wild Child among the Huxtables–she always wore the craziest fashions and dated boys her father couldn’t stand. Lisa Bonet sometimes tried Cosby’s patience even more than her character did, and she was often late for tapings or sometimes didn’t bother to show up at all.
The turning point for both actress and character came in 1986, when 19-year-old Bonet spent her hiatus co-starring in Angel Heart, a movie that had to edit many scenes in order to avoid an X rating. Topless photos of Bonet were being leaked to the media to promote the film, and Cosby had her much younger TV siblings to consider. Denise was the most popular Huxtable (according to the fan mail), so Cosby solved the problem by spinning her off into A Different World, a series set at Hillman College.
Bill Cosby didn’t want to add infants to the series, so when Phylicia Rashad was pregnant during Season Three, extreme measures were used to conceal her burgeoning midsection. Clair was either conveniently away at a conference in Washington D.C. or confined to bed. This bed had a specially constructed mattress that was scooped out so her tummy wouldn’t make the covers protrude, and the contraption resulted in a pinched nerve in her back. The masquerade became downright bizarre, like in “Vanessa’s Rich,” when Clair is seated on the living room sofa with a giant teddy bear in front of her for no explained reason whatsoever.
And then Lisa Bonet, who had eloped with musician Lenny Kravitz on November 16, 1987, announced that she was with child early in 1988. A pregnant college freshman was not what the producers of A Different World had in mind, so Bonet was canned from that show and was rehired back on The Cosby Show for Season Five. Of course, she was outfitted in oversized jackets and loose-fitting wild-patterned shirts until Episode Five, where she conveniently was given permission by Cliff and Clair to accompany a photographer to Zaire for an extended assignment.
As a rule, stage fright would put a kibosh on any child actor’s career, but Cosby decided to capitalize on it in the case of Peter Costa. Costa had trouble reciting his lines due to “red light fever” once the cameras started rolling. But Cosby cast him as Rudy’s playmate Peter who lived across the street. Peter rarely spoke to anyone, especially adults, but Rudy always “understood” him, much like regular kids do with the friends that confound their parents.