Friday, Nov. 27, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Three months ago Bill Cosby performed in Las Vegas for the first time in years, headlining at Treasure Island.
He returns for an encore tonight.
It may be the last time fans have a chance to see America’s uncrowned raconteur laureate on a Las Vegas stage for a while.
“The last time I played there,” Cosby says during a phone call to his home in Shelburne Falls, Mass., “the attendance was not good. The town was kind of down.”
“If it doesn’t do better this time then I’ll just lay out till it turns into a boomtown again,” the 72-year-old Cosby says.
He never seems to get angry. He says he can, but keeps it under tight control.
Rather than protest nightclub segregation in the early ’60s, for instance, Cosby simply didn’t perform in the nonintegrated ones.
“A club would call and say, ‘We’d like to have Bill Cosby play.’ My agent would say, ‘Are you integrated?’ ‘No, we’re not.’ ‘OK, goodbye.’ What’s the reason for yelling at people?”
He used his growing star power in the ’60s — when he co-starred in the hit TV series “I Spy” — and later years to quietly help change the face of Hollywood, including the introduction of black stuntmen.
From ’69 to ’71 Cosby starred as Chet Kincaid in “The Bill Cosby Show,” not to be confused with “The Cosby Show” (1984-92), in which he played Dr. Heathcliff ‘Cliff’ Huxtable.
“What happened during the Chet Kincaid show — the union was all white on the lot except for the black people who were light in color, because the unions thought they were either Filipinos or Indians,” Cosby says.
He asked his producer about the situation.
“It turns out they had a law that said that they didn’t mind black people in the union, it’s just that if (producers) wanted to do this then they had to pay the black interns and the regular white guy who was in the union — they both had to have regular salaries,” Cosby said. “I assumed since no blacks were in the unions, then every union had the same rule — whether it was painters or somebody polishing doorknobs or doing hair or makeup or wardrobe.”
Hiring blacks for entry-level jobs in order to get them into the union essentially doubled the cost of production.
Where others balked, Cosby didn’t.
“These apprentices would serve behind the union members, learn their trade and take a test and then be admitted into the union. I put all those people in line to join the unions — I even put in a still photographer to get a license and be in the union.”
Cosby wasn’t angry during any of this.
“I would have been angry had they set up some kind of trickery,” he says.
He didn’t even get angry when he ultimately fired a hairstylist — an older black woman — from “The Bill Cosby Show.”
“Everybody loved her,” Cosby says. “She worked behind a white woman who was doing hair on the show.”
The black worker refused to take the test to join the union and after more than a year Cosby told her she needed to take the test.
“I told her I had to put some more people in the union and she was the only one who had not taken the test,” Cosby says. “She sat down and in great sorrow she said that she was scared because she would lose her friends, the white ones.
“I began to feel that I was talking to some child who was under peer pressure at school or something. I said to her, ‘You’re going to have to go. You have friends and you can work any place, but I’ve got to put people into the union.’ Then they brought a black woman to me who did the internship in 16 weeks, passed the test and bam, she was in. She wasn’t worried about making friends with anyone.”
Even today, he is slow to anger.
“What is there to really be angry about at this point?” he says. “I just know I’m in a position (where) I don’t have to put up with any foolishness. If you go behind my back and do foolish things then I’m going to get angry. If your racism puts you in a position to where you’re obsessed and want to do damage to my show, then I’m going to get angry.”