Imagine for a moment that Cliff Huxtable has been possessed by the ghost of Fred Sanford. That's the first thing that comes to mind when Bill Cosby greets you at 3 in the afternoon in his palatial Manhattan brownstone, still puttering around in red-plaid flannel pajamas on an unusually warm fall day. It's been a decade since the 66-year-old comedian stopped playing TV's favorite dad, and in retirement he's grown older and more ornery than we remember. The round, friendly face is worn and thinner, and the mischievous sparkle is dimmed by weariness. In case you were wondering why he's wearing bedclothes to an afternoon interview, Cosby cuts a playfully defiant look that screams "I dare you to say a word," and explains, "In my house, on my couch--I love it. It's the best work environment you could ask for."
He wants to talk about his latest effort, "I Am What I Ate... And I'm Frightened," a comic, poignant memoir about letting go of the finer things in life--namely cigars and potato chips. For years Cosby ate the way he did as a teenager; after all, his mom dined on lamb chops and fried potatoes, right through four minor strokes, and lived into her late 80s. But Cosby's doctor laid down the law early last year when he went in for a regular checkup and came out with test results showing a high cholesterol count and a 30 percent blockage in the carotid artery that feeds the brain. If he wanted to keep playing his newest role--as a real-life grandfather--he'd have to trade in pork rinds for grilled fish. "They will never know that side of me," Cosby says, with a laugh, of his two infant granddaughters.
A phone call interrupts his monologue. It's Michael, a former Morehouse College classmate of Cosby's late son, Ennis. The comic's face lights up as he learns that Michael has passed the bar exam, on his first try. (A longtime champion of black colleges, the comic loves nothing more than to see minority kids getting their education.) Cosby tells his caller to hold. He dashes into the foyer and stands in front of a massive bronze bust of his son, adorned with spiritual crystals placed there by his wife, Camille. "Ennis, Michael passed on his very first try," Cosby addresses the bust. "Isn't that something? That's a Morehouse man for you. Nothing can stop you." Before heading back to the phone, Cosby places a kiss on the bronze forehead.
This is hardly the dad in the bright, colorful sweaters we remember from "The Cosby Show," the one who hid his potato-chip habit from his wife and delivered a deadpan eulogy as he flushed his daughter's goldfish down the toilet. America's favorite father has become a senior citizen, weathered by life's aches and pains. The loss of his 27-year-old son to a robber's bullet six years ago hangs over Cosby's life, from the vivid oil paintings of Ennis that decorate several rooms of the family home to the tidbits he constantly offers about the late young man ("Ennis was gonna pledge Alpha," he says when you comment on his own fraternity key chain). Where Dr. Huxtable could afford to make fun when Claire nagged him to snack on rice cakes, a more frail Bill Cosby knows there's nothing funny about heart attacks and strokes. Nor does he find humor in what many of today's black comics are doing with the legacy he left them. Where Cosby's routines were mostly good-natured and colorblind, he thinks comics now are foulmouthed, misogynistic and too eager to reinforce negative stereotypes of black people.
When Cosby went to collect a lifetime achievement award at this year's Emmys, cohost Wanda Sykes asked him in all of her stereotypical finger-snapping, ghetto-girl glory how he managed to get where he did. "I spoke English," Cosby remarked. He's particularly irritated that the image of African-American equality he gave us on "The Cosby Show" isn't more of a reality. Furious at the increased opposition to affirmative action, Cosby says, "There's no admission at all at the severe lack of equality minority kids have from day one."
Still, in his own, funny way, Cosby seems to be making peace with loss and disappointment. Rather than let the footlights dim on a phenomenal four-decade career, he performs almost every weekend, doing stand-up routines in front of sold-out crowds or making fund-raising appearances at black colleges. He's writing and producing a "Fat Albert" movie for release late next year, and created a new show for Nick at Nite based on his best-selling book "Fatherhood." He admits that even when his pain was the most unbearable, he never thought of giving up his life's work. "Comedy is what I do, and nothing changes that. I like to make people laugh," he says. "It was so hard the first few months after Ennis's death because people would look at me with such sad faces. I was used to people seeing me and immediately smiling and laughing." Still, he's found ways to draw from the hand life has dealt him for inspiration on new projects. His "Little Bill" children's books, which have been turned into a Nickelodeon series, are an homage to Ennis.
Socializing at home with friends one day after getting the lecture from his doctor, Cosby was inspired to write "I Am What I Ate." "My friends would always end up talking about the medicine we forgot to take, or the blood pressure that needed to be lower," he says. The book is filled with the kind of crotchety humor that could come only from a man who's been told he must part with his beloved scrapple, a fried mush of pork scraps and cornmeal. "I look at some of these people coming out of these fast-food restaurants and some of these people look very large. But they are still up and walking around," Cosby writes in his trademark rambling style (which is a bit more rambling these days). "I see a woman who must weigh 270 pounds. I weigh 180 and I want to know why my doctor said I can't have it and her doctor said she could continue to go there and get some fries. I want to know why and now I'm a very, very angry person. Sometimes these people just don't want me to have fun." Hardest for Cosby to part with were his Cuban cigars. He'd been smoking five a day for nearly 30 years. But he quit cold turkey, drawing inspiration from one of his jazz heroes. "I just thought about John Coltrane and how he kicked his heroin habit just like that," Cosby says. "He just decided to stop one day, and then he just worked and worked so he wouldn't feel the withdrawal."
While Cosby draws strength from the old school, he's never cared much for the younger generation of black comedians and their profanity-filled humor--guys like Martin Lawrence, Jamie Fox and Eddie Murphy (who parodied Cosby in his concert film "Delirious," telling the older comic to "have a Coke and a smile and shut the f--- up"). Cosby's disappointment with the younger crop has only grown with age. "I do miss the days when comedy wasn't mean," Cosby says. "When jokes weren't at other people's expense and you used profanity rarely. Getting people to laugh without being vulgar and cruel is the creative process at its best."
If Cosby is hard on the younger guys, it's because he thinks their job isn't limited to getting laughs. Whether they know it or not, they are role models as well. Though it may have gone over the heads of many, "The Cosby Show," which reigned for nine years on NBC, was practically a public-service announcement on behalf of equality, a 30-minute reminder that minorities can and should enjoy the same success, quality of life and family joy as every other American. During the "Cosby" years, the comic says he would often get complaints about how unrealistic it was for a black family to have a doctor and a lawyer as parents. "But then I watched 'Friends,' and any number of other shows based in New York, and no black people are in them. How realistic is that?!" Cosby says.
Yet Cliff Huxtable lived in an idealized world, and Cosby's blood boils every time he is reminded of this. "I watch these talk shows and hear the people complain about affirmative action, and it just makes me angry," Cosby says. "You'd think that all black people are doing is begging for money and for special attention when they don't deserve it." His disappointment is palpable whenever the subject of inner-city education comes up. In spite of the millions he and his wife have spent on educational charities, his outlook is still bleak. "Some of these urban elementary schools don't have enough books to go around and then the pages are missing. It's maddening to me." He reminds you that Ennis was going to be part of the solution: he was studying to be a teacher when he was murdered. "That guy didn't know what he was doing when he took Ennis away from us and from others. That kid had so much to offer and he wanted to become a teacher to give it all back. That's the kind of young man that's gone." Gone, but never forgotten, in Cosby's world.