Warning: Although peripheral to this story, the name Bill Cosby will be prominently invoked, on whose predicament I have nothing to say beyond “Due Process.” The story is primarily about me.
If you choose, you can replace his name in this story with any superstar with whom one is about to collaborate. Bill Cosby just happens to be the superstar in mine.
I had been invited to Bill Cosby’s house for dinner, along with The Cosby Show co-owner (with partner Marcy Carsey) Tom Werner who drove me there because it was dark and my driving is hazardous enough in the daytime. “Night Blindness” is an actual condition, affecting distance perception. You hit the car in front of you before you think you are going to, which, being unfortunate and costly, is also genuinely surprising.
Filling out the list of invitees were a handful of executives from Jell-O – for which Cosby was then the commercial spokesman – all of whom were African-American, a fact I mention as no meaningful racial distinction beyond the fact that Cosby presented them all with cigars but not us. (Until, unwilling to be left out, I asked for one. “What kind would you like?” Cosby inquired, ushering me through his commodious basement humidor. To which I knowledgeably replied, “I want one that is not too big for my face.”)
This dinner was in fact not Bill Cosby’s and my initial encounter. We had been introduced earlier over the telephone at the “Carsey-Werner” production offices, where I, as the show’s Executive Producer, tried to persuade Cosby – carefully selecting my words which did not include the following – that it seemed jarringly ostentatious that the professional parents on The Cosby Show portray a doctor and a lawyer. (Especially after I had learned that Cosby had originally proposed that the character he would play on the series be a limousine driver.)
“How about you’re a doctor and she’s a college professor?” I politely proposed.
To which, as if he were carrying four hundred years of discriminatorial condescension on his back, Bill Cosby wearily replied,
“I’m a doctor and she’s a lawyer.”
If you know anything about the show, you are aware of who prevailed in that particular difference of opinion.
So there I am, dining at a star’s house, who I am about to work with and hope to establish a rapport. If not actual trust and mutual respect.
I shall now jump to the end of the evening, as this is where the retroactively regrettable incident in question took place.
But first, some explanatory background.
During the pre-production period for the series, which we were then currently involved in, I had written the First Draft of a script (entitled “Good-Bye, Mister Fish”, an irrelevant allusion to “Good-bye Mr. Chips”, as it did not concern a beloved schoolteacher but was instead about the youngest daughter “Rudy’s” goldfish dying and “Dr. Huxtable” insisting the family put on their best clothes and stage a formal memorial funeral for the departed pet, standing over the toilet in the bathroom.)
I had brought a copy of “Good-bye, Mr. Fish” to the dinner, where I presented it to Cosby, and, since he was about to leave town and I needed time to revise it to his specifications before the punishing onslaught of actual production, I proposed, during dinner, that I return the following morning, to receive Cosby’s ameliorating “notes.” Cosby initially resisted but I insistently stood firm and he ultimately agreed.
Okay, back to the end of the evening.
There were the cordial goodbyes, after which Tom Werner and I exited the front door. Suddenly, I stopped. Something was seriously bothering me.
I asked Tom Werner to wait; I needed to go back inside and talk to Cosby. I then returned to the house, where I walked up to our former-football-player-and-still- formidable-looking host and I said,
“Can we go someplace for a minute and talk?”
An amiably perplexed Cosby took me into a nearby den where he closed the door for my requested conversation. Although that talk could have easily veered in the direction of, “You do not make demands of an international superstar. And by the way, you’re fired.”
It did not go that way. I had Cosby’s nodding permission to proceed.
A pertinent digression:
Writer and commentator Michael Kinsley had this line about “gaffes”, ascribed to a Washington “Beltway” context but it could just as easily apply anywhere.
“A gaffe,” Kinsley cleverly aphorized, “is when a politician tells the truth.”
That’s what I did.
During our personal conversation, I revealed something inarguably inappropriate to a major star I was meeting for the first time who had lavishly fed me and had given me a cigar, concerning our upcoming collaboration, which I sensed from his reaction to my suggested “notes session” would be precariously onerous, unless I immediately nipped the potential difficulty in the proverbial bud.
What I wanted to convey was, “Series television is a terribly arduously undertaking and we need to work cooperatively to make things as manageable as possible on both of us.” What came out, however, was
“I do not want to die.”
That’s what I told a powerful stranger.
And like all gaffes, I meant it. (Note: It turned out, when I departed The Cosby Show after its first seven episodes of production, I felt unexaggeratingly like I might die.)
My current intent, beyond a somewhat interesting/slash/hugely embarrassing anecdote?
I will eventually write more on this subject, perhaps shortly. But here’s the “starting point.”
Being the Executive Producer on a show I believed in – forget about its later spectacular success – was an absolute dream opportunity. But I was not willing to die for it.
I sense that people in a similar position don’t think about that.
Which allows them to accomplish more things.