The Cosby Show is an American TV sitcom starring Bill Cosby, which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1992. The show focused on the daily interactions of the Huxtable family, an upper middle-class African American family living in Brooklyn, New York. It features the patriarch Cliff Huxtable (played by Bill Cosby), an obstetrician and son of a famous jazz trombonist, and his wife attorney Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad). They have 4 daughers and one son: Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa and Rudy, who had their own strengths and weaknesses that kept their white-collar parents on their toes.
Although most people’s collective memories of the show has been tarnished by sexual assault scandals surrounding Bill Cosby, we can admit that the show had a great impact on American culture and made a TV history for fighting off black family stereotypes. It also showed revived the family sitcom genre, as most family sitcoms in the early 1980s involved kids smart-mouthing their parents and getting their own way without any repercussions. In The Cosby Show, the kids were smart but the parents were smarter and definitely in charge
The show also inspired other productions to make shows with a predominantly African-American cast, like In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The series led to the spinoff A Different World, which ran for 6 seasons from 1987 to 1993.
Here are some facts about this groundbreaking comedy that you probably didn’t know:
1. Bill Cosby was worried about the reaction of the studio audience to the pilot
The pilot episode of The Cosby Show was filmed in front of a live audience and Bill was a little worried that the audience wasn’t embracing his overall vision of the series. In one scene, Theo was defending the “D” on his report card, and made a speech, “If you weren’t a doctor, I wouldn’t love you less, because you’re my dad. So rather than feeling disappointed because I’m not like you, maybe you should accept who I am and love me anyway, because I’m your son.” The audience spontaneously applauded after this. Luckily, the audience also applauded more enthusiastically when he replied, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”
2. The Huxtable couple almost had different jobs
In the original pitch for the show, Cliff was to play a limousine driver and Clair was to be a union plumber. They also wanted Clair to be Dominican and have her revert into native Spanish whenever she is frustrated. However, Bill’s real-life wife Camille Cosby told her husband that the TV couple should be more reflective of their real life. The executive producer Marcy Carsey sided with Camille’s idea, so Cosby made the characters as two white-collar professional parents.
3. Originally, the Huxtable children were only four
There was a scene in the pilot when Clair asked, “Why did we have four children?” Cliff responds, “Because we didn’t want five.” Originally, Denise was the oldest child, followed by Theo, Vanessa and Rudy. But as the series became a hit, they later added Sondra, the eldest Huxtable child. Sondra was attending a university at Princeton to show an example of successful parenting.
4. Cosby’s sweaters were not random
Cliff Huxtable’s sweaters were iconic, and it even became Bill Cosby’s signature style. It looks random, but they were actually designed by one artist. In one episode of the show, Cosby wore a unique sweater designed by Dutch fashion designer Koos Van Den Akker. Mail poured in as viewers asked where they can buy the same sweater. Because of that Cosby asked Van Den Akker to make more of the unique sweater, and a legacy was born. The designer describe the process of creating each sweater as a painting, throwing various colors and patterns of fabric pieces together on a wool or jersey blend canvas.
5. Phylicia Rashad’s stare helped her get the role
Of all the actresses who auditioned for the role of Clair, Phylicia Rashad’s performance during a screen test stood out. All the candidates were tested on how they would argue with Theo, but unlike the others, she didn’t wag her head or place her hand on her hip – instead, she simply gave Theo a look that is frightening enough to get a child to submit. Immediately, Cosby knew that she would be Clair.
6. Whitney Houston almost played the role of Sondra
The late Whitney Houston almost played the role of the over-achieving daughter Sondra. Sabrina LeBeauf won the role over Whitney and even future Miss America Suzette Charles because she had more theater experience. Cosby was partly impressed by her because she is well-educated just like Sondra, as LeBeauf was a recent graduate of Yale, just like the character he had in mind.
7. Urkel almost played Rudy
Initially, the character Rudy was supposed to be a boy – a younger brother who looked up to Theo. Eight-year-old Jaleel White had auditioned so strongly that his agent told his parents to start looking for apartments in New York, where The Cosby Show was filmed. But the producer still had more kids to consider. Keshia Knight-Pulliam came in and charmed everyone that the director moved her to the top of the shortlist, and switched the character into a girl. For Jaleel, of course, the role of Urkel in Family Matters went to him, so he did just fine.
8. Theo was supposed to be taller
The role of Theo was originally a part for a 6’2” tall 15-year-old, But Malcolm-Jamal Warner was just 5’5” and only 13. At his audition, he played the role in a very bratty way – hands on hip and rolled eyes. Everyone was amused except Cosby. He asked the young actor if he would act like that with his real father, so Warner gave it another go with that in mind and nailed it.
9. Vanessa went to college because Tempestt Bledsoe did
When actress Tempest Bledsoe wanted to go to college, the writers wrote it into the show that her character Vanessa would go to college as well. Season 7 started with a back-to-school episode where Cliff and Clair happily ushered their children out the door. Vanessa was carrying a suitcase back then, because it was revealed that she attended summer classes so that can graduate high school early. This changed Vanessa’s story arc, and was done because Cosby wanted to help her as much as possible. The show’s shooting schedule was also adjusted so that Bledsoe can go to school full-time.
10. Some of Dr. Cliff’s family members were named after Cosby’s real-life family
Bill Cosby has incorporated names from his own real-life family to his sitcom relatives. Back then, Bill Hank’s wife was Camille Olivia Hanks, and Clair Huxtable’s maiden name was Hanks. Denise’s stepdaughter was named Olivia. And his mother’s name in the show was Anna, just like his real-life mom. Grandpa Russel was named after Bill’s real-life brother.
11. Gordon Gartrelle was a real person
There was a running gag on the show that whenever Malcolm-Jamal Warner attends a formal event, there’s always one wise guy who would ask him if he’s wearing Gordon Gartrelle. Theo’s memorable yellow satin shirt with two-tone pockets has become entwined with garish, ill-fitting couture. But Gordon Gartrelle wasn’t just a random, made-up designer; he was a writer and producer on the show.
12. The spin-off series came because of Lisa Bonet’s nude photos
In the show, Denise was the wild child. She always wore the craziest outfits and dated boys that her father couldn’t stand. In real life, the actress playing Denise (Lisa Bonet) sometimes tried Cosby’s patience even more than her character did, as she sometimes show up late for tapings, or don’t bother to come at all. The turning point, both for the actress and her character came in 1986, when 19-year-old Lisa Bonet did a film entitled Angel Heart, which was pretty racy and promoted topless photos of her. Cosby had to consider the younger TV siblings and the audience, so he thought it would be better to send the character Denise into college. This is how the spin-off A Different World, a series set at Hillman College, came to be.
13. During filming, there has been baby bumps along the road
While filming season three, Phylicia Rashad was pregnant. But because Bill Cosby didn’t want to add babies to the series, they made extreme measures to conceal her burgeoning baby bump. At some points, Clair had to be away at a conference or confined in bed, which had a specially constructed mattress that was scooped out so her tummy wouldn’t protrude under the covers. This resulted into a pinched nerve in her back. In one episode, Clair is seated in their living room sofa with a giant teddy bear in front of her with no explanation or mention in the scene whatsoever.
Also, when Lisa Bonet eloped with musician Lenny Kravitz on 1987, she announced that she was with child by 1988. She was filming for the spin-off back then, and a pregnant college freshman wasn’t what they wanted. Bonet was canned from the show and was rehired back on The Cosby Show for season five. During her pregnancy, she wore oversized jackets and loose-fitting shirts in the show until she was given permission by Cliff and Clair to go to Zaire to accompany a photographer.
14. Little Alicia Keys made an appearance on the show
Before Alicia Keys became the musical popstar she is today, she had one of her first acting gigs as a four-year-old. She played one of Rudy’s friends on the show and appeared on Rudy’s birthday party where she sat on Cliff’s lap when she was playing a riding horse. Besides Alicia Keys, Adam Sandler also had his first acting gig on the show, as a friend of Theo named Smitty.
15. They had to change the name of the show for Italy
The Cosby Show was a hit not just in the US but also all over the world, but with minor tweaks made for non-US audiences. In Italy, the surname “Huxtable” was so hard to pronounce, so the family’s name was changed to The Robinsons for their convenience. The name was chosen in honor of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American who played in Major League Basketball.