“What is it about grandparents that is so lovely? I’d like to say that grandparents are God’s gifts to children. And if they can but see, hear, and feel what these people have to give, they can mature at a fast rate.”
— Bill Cosby
William Henry Cosby, Jr. was born on July 12, 1937, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Coming from humble beginnings, the entertainer better known as Bill Cosby became one of the most respected and well-known actors, comedians, producers, writers, and pitchmen in the world. For more than 50 years, this legendary performer and consummate teacher has been making audiences laugh — and think — and learn. And one of his favorite topics is, as it always has been, family, including the special and often comical relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.
After a stint in the Navy, Cosby completed high school through a correspondence course and attended Temple University on an athletic scholarship. Later in life, in the mid-1970s, Cosby received a doctorate in urban education from the University of Massachusetts and was one of the original cast members of the PBS educational series The Electric Company.
While in his early 20s, Cosby began performing stand-up comedy in clubs. He went on to perform sold-out concerts all over the country, appear in variety television programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show (Johnny Carson), and release one bestselling comedy album after another. His big break as an actor came in 1965, when he co-starred with Robert Culp in the TV drama I Spy, for which he won three Emmys. Soon after, he created The Bill Cosby Show, a sitcom series in which he starred as a gym teacher. He later developed Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, an animated series whose characters — Weird Harold, Dumb Donald, Mushmouth, and others — were based on many of Cosby’s high school buddies.
Perhaps the most influential TV series Cosby created was The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992. A situation comedy about an African-American family comprised of a father who is a respected physician, a mother who is a respected attorney, five bright and beautiful children, and two sets of doting grandparents, the show took America inside the lives of a typical middle-class family and taught us what racial equality really looks like. Like most of the artist’s creative productions, the Huxtables and their experiences were based largely on Cosby’s own family and their lives.
Bill and Camille, his wife of 48 years, are the parents of four daughters (Erika, Erinn, Ensa, and Evin) and one son (Ennis, who died tragically in 1997). After a lifetime surrounded by children — his own, the adorable tykes in pudding commercials, those on The Cosby Show and on Kids Say the Darndest Things — Cosby is now a grandfather of three.
“Grandparents are God’s gifts to children,” Bill Cosby once proclaimed, long before he had grandkids of his own. In an exclusive interview with GRAND magazine, we asked him what makes grandparents so special, what is their gift.
“Patience,” he said simply. Then, he explained, “When you have, let’s say, a 4-year-old who does something like play with matches, the parents generally will become very, very excited and begin to tell the child what could have happened, and it adds pressure [to the situation]. The grandparents, seeing that, will address it a different way. Of course, the idea is to take the matches away, but [with] grandparents it comes from a place of calmness and patience.”
Cosby was drawn to that place of calmness and patience when interacting with his own grandfather — from whom he also learned the art of storytelling. During our conversation, he noted that grandparents are not pressed for time like parents can be. He said that when his own father couldn’t be around, his grandfather, who lived to be 95, was a steady role model.
“My grandfather never moved quickly to stop something that was going badly or that I was doing. He would just say, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’ Did it work? Sometimes; not always. But the important thing was he would let it play out, and then you’d see it and learn from it.”
If Cosby got his storytelling ability from his grandfather, he may have gotten his comedic abilities from his grandmother.
“I still laugh when I remember my grandmother. [One time,] she was on the sofa, lying there horizontal. There was no one else in the house, and I went up to her. She looked like she was sleeping, and as I got close, she shot her dentures out of her mouth, not all the way, just outside her lips. I just ran and I laughed, and it became a game. I’d come back again and again and look at her — I don’t know how many times — and she would do it again. All the time, she was pretending to be sleeping. And I was just gone. I never laughed so hard!”
To Cosby, it points to another distinction grandparents have. “Sometimes, they can just do crazy, goofy things and play with grandkids in a way parents can’t or don’t. That’s the difference in grandparents and parents.”
Of course, some parents have the ability to make a similar impact on their children. “One of the most wonderful moments was when I drove my son Ennis, who was 6 years old, to Filmation Studios, where they produced Fat Albert. Ennis was walking with me, and I was pointing things out and people were coming up to say hello. Filmation had their own recording studio, and I went into the sound room, took the script, and did the voices for the show. When I came out, this son of mine grabbed my left thigh and hugged me and said, ‘Dad, you’re Fat Albert!’ He was so excited.”
The Cosby grandchildren have a tendency to get “excited” when visiting Bill and Camille in their Massachusetts home for the holidays. In his new book, I Didn’t Ask to Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was), Cosby relates a story about Christmas with the grandchildren two years ago. The girls, “Camille Two” and “Lacey,” were then 7. The boy, “G.P.”, was then 5. (He refers to them by nicknames to protect their privacy.)
“I love my grandchildren, but everything with them is a matter of loud laughing or loud crying.” The loud noises and laughing came to an abrupt halt, however, when Cosby arranged for the grandchildren to receive a call from “Santa’s helpers” to check up on them. While the girls cowered in silence, G.P. felt compelled to speak.
Cosby marveled at the scene. “I thought, this is wonderful. Here is this 5-year-old boy cleaning up his act. [He’ll] admit to a few bad things because he believes Santa knows everything but then comes back with a few good things from the last couple of days.”
Most importantly, however, peace was restored to the Cosby household — at least for the holidays.
Although Cosby often pokes fun at his family in his work, his devotion to them is undeniable. “I am most proud of my wife, Camille. She is difficult to explain, but she is the most important person in my life and in my career. We’re married 48 years, but at times we will both look at each other and say, ‘I was wondering where you were going with that.’”
Now, he looks with a sense of wonder at his daughters, all grown up and with families of their own. “I’ve never thought about what singular joy I have out of being a grandparent. But for me, I really am surprised at my daughters — when I say ‘my,’ I know it is ‘ours,’ my wife and my daughters, but it is my feelings I am talking about here. I look at my daughters, and at times I smile because of the numbers. You can see in your own children how young they really are, and you can also see yourself at that age. Those things make me smile. Because, on one hand, you are saying to them you know how to do something, but now I am at the age when I know you can’t really know what you’re doing.”
Taking a page out of his grandfather’s book, Cosby says successful grandparenting is not about knowing something; it’s about becoming something. “The fact is, as you get older, you mellow and realize that calm and firmness is the way to get to a child on an emotional level. It’s automatic. Children just know and relate to it.”
In his new book, I Didn’t Ask to Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was), Dr. Cos introduces us to a new cast of comedic characters, including Old Mother Harold, and holds forth on life’s hilarious moments, including a grandchild’s infatuation with Godzilla.
Click here to watch “Stymie: Santa’s Dietician” — Cosby recalling a passage from his book.
Click here for a belly laugh like only the doctor of comedy can trigger, watch this classic Bill Cosby routine, “The Grandparents.”