cover image Cosby: His Life and Times

Cosby: His Life and Times

Mark Whitaker. Simon & Schuster, $29.99 (544p) ISBN 978-1-4516-9797-1

Bill Cosby has his image complicated in this absorbing biography from former Newsweek editor Whitaker (My Long Trip Home), who traces Cosby’s rise from poverty in the Philadelphia projects where he lived with a working mom and an alcoholic and largely absent father during his feckless boyhood of academic failure. Cosby achieved success in everything he lacked in youth: wealth and fame as a superstar, a legendary role in The Cosby Show as a prosperous, doting paterfamilias, and a public voice as a crusader for education, personal responsibility, and committed parenting in the African-American community (despite personal missteps that would come back to haunt him). Along the way the author illuminates, with telling detail, Cosby’s remarkable achievements as a comedic technician who avoided easy gags and carefully honed his long-form stand-up routines while approaching acting roles with naturalistic improvisation. Cosby has been controversial for being noncontroversial—for eschewing edgy racial humor and politics in favor of a warm-hearted inclusiveness that white audiences embraced—but Whitaker shows the prickliness beneath the affable exterior and the genuine if sometimes muted concern for civil rights. He makes a persuasive case for Cosby as a groundbreaking comic and a quiet but far-ranging pioneer of black advancement. Photos. (Sept. 16)