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William Henry "Bill" Cosby, Jr. (1937- )

Superstar, comedian, athlete, and jazz musician William Henry Cosby, Jr., served in the U.S. Navy from 1956 to 1961, trained as a hospital corpsman and worked mostly with veterans of the Korean War. He also ran track on the Navy's team, as well as played basketball and football, and completed his high-school diploma. It was in the Navy that he came to accept the fact of his above-average intelligence and concluded that not to do something with it would be a "mental sin." On the strength of his naval experience, in 1961 Cosby won a scholarship to Temple University, Philadelphia.

However, it was also during his Navy years that Cosby experienced for the first time the insult of being refused in a restaurant along with the rest of the guys. His travels with the U.S. Navy track team took him into the Deep South, where he was forced to enter restaurants through the back door and eat in the kitchen. This outrageous practice persisted in the South at least through the 1960s, and even though the kitchen offered better service, better food, and more of it, for a man born and raised in the North, it was particularly appalling. Fortunately, he never had to ride a bus and face the insolence of being told to sit at the back of it.

Sailor Bill Cosby played basketball for the Navy, image courtesy of James E. Wise.

Sailor Bill Cosby played basketball for the Navy.

Fortunately as well, Bill Cosby (born 1937) had a naturally good image of himself, one that had been carefully instilled by his mother, Anna Pearl Cosby, a domestic worker who read Mark Twain and the Bible to her three sons at night. It was she who inculcated in them the certainty that a better life was available than what surrounded them in their impoverished neighborhood of Germantown, North Philadelphia.

The boys grew up in the projects, but their parents programmed them from an early age to expect, and to work for, more. Their father, William Henry Cosby, was a mess steward in the Navy; his tours of duty took him away from home for months at a time. To his parents' dismay, Bill could not wait to start working himself: he quit high school in the tenth grade and got a job fixing shoes.

This did not satisfy the bright lad, who moved on to fixing auto mufflers, but that did not do it, either. Finally, at a loss for how to improve his future, he decided to follow his father's example and join the Navy. At least there, if he could stick it out for twenty years he would be guaranteed a decent income for life.

At the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia, his high IQ scores earned him training as a physical therapist, followed by assignment to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland. There he worked as a corpsman, helping to rehabilitate mostly Korean War veterans, a duty that he liked and at which he excelled. He was also sent briefly on board ship, from Newfoundland to Guantanamo Bay. Finally he was assigned to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital.

With the track team, he traveled around the country and improved his skills, getting his time in the hundred-yard dash down to 10.2 seconds; clearing six feet, five inches in the high jump; and reaching forty-six feet, eight inches in the hop-step jump. He also had a more-than-passing interest in three other sports (football, basketball, and baseball), playing with the Quantico Marine football team in 1956 and playing guard and forward on the National Naval Medical Center varsity basketball team. In 1954 he had tried out for the Baltimore Orioles. During his Navy years, the popular, jocular Cosby made a lot of friends, meeting people who were working hard to better their prospects through the courses offered in the service. Realizing that many of them were applying themselves more than he had ever done--it had never taken much effort for him to do minimally well, thanks to his mental prowess--Cosby came to appreciate the gift he had been born with and resolved to put it to work. He began by earning his high-school diploma while still in the Navy.

Image courtesy of James E. Wise. After being honorably discharged in 1961, he was determined to continue his studies, and Temple University provided the way. With a track-and-field scholarship, he majored in physical education, running track, playing football, and throwing the discus and javelin. He also worked part-time jobs, which is how his show-business career got started.

Shortly after he started school, someone offered him a few bucks to fill in at a coffeehouse, tending bar and telling jokes. This led to a job at a Philadelphia nightclub, where he told some more jokes and earned a few more bucks. From there he made his way to New York City's Gaslight Cafe, where another of the comedians was Woody Allen. Cosby's own popularity was growing, and it was time to make a decision. He could not pursue both school and all the entertainment jobs that were now coming his way.

Ever the worker, Bill Cosby took the jobs. By 1963 he was being interviewed by Newsweek, and in 1965 an appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show led to a screen test for the television series I Spy (1965-68). Cosby won the part. His future -and that of his family -was now assured. Aside from his bountiful television work, featuring The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), The New Bill Cosby Show (1972-73), The Cosby Show (1984-92), and Cosby which premiered in the fall of 1996, he has appeared in several movies, including Hickey and Boggs (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), California Suite (1978), and The Devil and Max Devlin (1981). The Cosby Show was the top-rated TV series of the late 1980s and one of the most successful ever, turning its creator into one of the richest entertainers in the country. The show has had a lasting positive effect across the racial spectrum.

Cosby has also made numerous records and has remained active in community work. He is the author of several books. He has played the drums since childhood and loves to listen to Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and other jazz classics. Since 1964 he has been married to Camille Hanks Cosby, who, like her husband, has a Ph.D. in education. Their son, Ennis, met an untimely and violent death while changing a tire on the Los Angeles freeway in January 1997. The Cosbys have four daughters to help them cope with this devastating loss; their ongoing work no doubt also helps.

Mr. Cosby was recognized by Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick West as an honorary chief petty officer on 17 February 2011 in a ceremony held at the US Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center.

Source: Wise, James E., Jr., and Anne Collier Rehill, Stars in Blue: Movie Actors in America's Sea Services (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997): 255-258.

Acknowledgment: The Navy Department Library gratefully acknowledges the Naval Institute Press for giving permission to post this chapter on the Naval History and Heritage Command website. All rights are reserved by the authors and publisher.

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