Backstage at the last Cosby Show – television program
After eight years in on of TV’s greatest productions, the Huxtable family moves on to other projects.
HE never expected it to hit him so hard.
After all, Malcolm-Jamal Warner had known for months that this would be the last season the Huxtables would be on television. Asked how he felt about saying farewell on the morning of the shows last taping, he answered calmly, “Its time. We’ve been blessed to have eight wonderful years, but the show has said everything it could say..
Thats what he said in the morning. By night fall, his cool had vanished like Cliff Huxtable’s constantly thwarted hopes for a few moments alone with his wife. And when he learned the reason Bill Cosby was looking for him, the 21-yearold star lost his cool and confessed in action how much he had been personally marked by what some people call the greatest television show of all times.
So did Cosby in his own Cosby-imitating-Huxtable-imitating. Cosby way. And although Cosby shunned the onstage farewell party and disappeared into his dressing room after ending the final scene by dancing off the set with Phylicia Rashad, he was reluctant, once -backstage, to leave. There was something he had to do first, he told Norman Brokaw, his agent of 20 years. “Has anybody seen Malcolm?” Cosby asked staff member after staff member. “I want to give him something.”
The “something” is what broke Warners composure. It was a red and blue baton, and when Cosby looked Warner in the eye and silently-passed it on to Warner, its meaning–and responsibility–was not lost on him. And it was then, after Cosby hugged him and disappeared into the rainy New York night, that it hit Warner: after eight glorious, history-making years, it was really over. Theo, the character he had played since he was just a 13-year-old kid and whose graduation from college was the subject of the final episode, would never again burst through the door of the Huxtable living room.
“I’ll be all right,” he insisted, his voice cracking as he reentered the studio after watching Cosbys car disappear. But as he fought hack tears and headed for his dressing room, it was clear that for him and for millions of Cosby Show junkies, Black and White, things would never be the same again.
On Stage H of the Kaufman-Astoria Studio in Queens, the mood was equally bittersweet. It had taken three hours and eight script revisions for director Jay Sandrich (who directed the pilot and returned to direct the last episode) to put the final hour-long show into the can. Once taping was complete, the afterparty kicked into high gear.
The tears flowed almost as much as the champagne, as cast and crew walked the set for the last time, hugging, reminiscing, and saying goodbye. Tempestt Bledsoe, a.k.a. Vanessa, roamed the set with a camcorder “to make sure I remember everybody.” Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy, wept into her mother’s arms like the adorable, 4-year-old baby she was when she started the show and had to memorize her lines because she couldn’t read. And 6-year-old Raven-Symone, who played Olivia and wasn’t even born when the show made its debut in September 1984, donned her shades, blew everyone kisses and walked out, looking every bit the star the show has made her.
Motown recording stars Boyz II Men, who entertained the studio audience during taping breaks, brought everyone to the emotional brink when they stopped the party, asked for quiet, and dedicated their hit “Its So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” to the entire cast. Every performer who played a major role on the show returned for the finale, with the notable exception of Lisa Bonet, who was fired from the cast last year. But her character, Denise, remamed in the show. During the last episode, Denise called from Singapore to tell the family that she is pregnant.
For Denise and for all the people touched by the Huxtable saga, and for the millions of viewers who now face the problem of Thursday night withdrawal pains, saying goodbye is not going to be easy. The Cosby Show, after all, wasn’t just a show. It was a phenomenon–for NBC, television and all of America. It transformed NBC, which B.C., before Cosby, finished dead last in the primetime viewer battle for nine straight years, into the No. 1 network.
In fact, the show was such a runaway hit, it revived the situation comedy. The year before Cosby premiered, not a single siteom made the season’s Top Ten programs. And, yes, it made truck loads of money. Media experts estimate the show earned NBC a cool billion and, in the process, made Bill Cosby one of Americas richest men.
But the shows true greatness can’t be measured in money or ratings or awards. The true measure of its success, many agree, lies in its most important and enduring contribution: the way it shattered all the stereotypes television ever heaped on Black people; and how, with warmth and humor and truth, it revolutionized-and forever changed–the way America views the Black family.
Ironically, it was that feature that set off a storm of controversy. Because the Huxtables were educated and affluent, some said the show was not “realistic.”
It was Phylicia Rashad who stilled much of the it’s-not-real-or-Blackenough blather with her quietly powerful response: “If the observation comes from White critics,” she said cooly, “maybe they have a problem in that they think of themselves as the only human beings on the planet. And when they see people who are not White in human circumstances, they feel we are not what we are supposed to be.”
What sweet irony that the show would become so immensely successful because it exploded the myth that White people would not watch a show with an all-Black cast. Before the last episode aired April 30, the multiple Emmy award-winning show was watched by more people than any other situation comedy in the history of television.
Watching the studio audiences reaction to the taping of the final episode– “And So We Commence”–its easy to see why America fell in love with the Huxtables. How could it resist? Every Thursday night at eight (EST), it was like looking into the mirror. The Huxtables were us and we were them. They weren’t a Black family or a White family. They were an American family.
That’s why every parent could relate to the final episode. Especially the fiveminute sequence in which Dr. Huxtable flashes back to the first episode in which Theo tells him he doesn’t need to make good grades because he wants to be a “regular person.”
But it was the appearance of 5-yearold Rudy and 13-year-old Vanessa, wrapped in shower caps and towels, that set off an audience tearrest. Unable to contain their emotion, the audience– which included New York Mayor and Mrs. David Dinkius and many of the star’s parents-oooohed and aaaaahed and cried as if they were watching home movies of their own children.
That’s probably because it felt like they were. The only constant that Cosby says he insisted the show maintain throughout its eight-year run was that it remain genuine. Real. “For eight years, all I have asked the writers to do is just write the truth, “be says.
And now that it s all over, now that the Huxtables have all scattered and gone their separate ways, whats the greatest memory he will take with bim? “It keeps coming up, no matter how I turn it around,” he says, pulling on his cigar. “Phylicia.” And, of course, the 208 episodes-tbe changing of the guard at Hillman College, Rudy singing “The Night Time Is The Right Time,” Cliff and Clair gettin’ down with Big Maybelle’s “Candy,” the burial of the family goldfish, the final, triumphant graduation of Theo–that will live forever now because he and Phylicia and all the Huxtables made a weekly feast of TV roles they were born to play.
And it was 6-year-old Raven-Symone who probably summed up the feeling of all America when she said simply, “I’m going to miss everyone.”
In his spacious dressin[ room at Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens, Cosby chats with noted psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who served as a technical consultant for the show during its lengthy run. Cosby engaged Poussaint to help monitor the scripts and maintain the warmth, humor and truth that made the show such a phenomenal success.
Post-Cosby Plans of Original Cast Members
BILL COSBY (a.k.a. Dr. Cliff Huxtable): Returning to Philadelphia where he will star in an updated TV version of the old Groucho Marx classic series You Bet Your Life.
PHYLICIA RASHAD (a.k.a. Clair Huxtable): Rest and spend time with her family.
MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER (a.k.a. Theo): Will star in his own series about a recent Howard graduate who gets a scholarship to graduate school to study pediatric psychology.
TEMPESTT BLEDSOE (a.k.a. Vanessa): Will complete work for her degree in finance at New York University.
KESHIA KNIGHT PULLIAM (a.k.a. Rudy): Spokesperson for two new organizations aimed at children to discourage smoking and promote education and personal responsibility.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Johnson Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group