Bill Cosby is to receive the Mark Twain Award for humor. When I heard about that many great memories flashed through my mind. "Cos" and I hit Greenwich Village at about the same time in the early '60s. He pursuing a stand-up comedy career, and I as an actor.
The first time I saw him, he was straight out of college and was performing at The Bitter End coffee house on Bleeker Street. One of his funniest sets was his "Noah's Ark" bit, which was to become one of his classics.
To help my career, I entered a talent contest at the Number One Fifth Avenue night club; a piano bar-type club with entertainment planned by the house pianist who happened to be a close friend of the late Pete Bolin of York.
I didn't have any comedy material so I did about five minutes of Andy Griffin, five minutes of Brother Dave Gardner and closed with Bill Cosby's 'Noah's Ark' bit. I didn't know that you weren't supposed to borrow (steal) material.
The contest was decided by applause and was held on the slowest nights to attract friends of the contestants to the club. I won the contest, and the late Totie Fields placed second. Several months later, Bill Cosby was on "The Tonight Show" and included his "Noah" bit. Every one of my friends who had clapped for me at the contest, called me to tell me a young Black comic had stolen my material.
A year or so later, Cosby was working nightly at the Gaslight, which was across McDougal Street from The Fat Black Pussy Cat where I was moonlighting when the word went out that some big TV producers were to attend Cosby's show at the Gaslight that night. Several of us went around with that news, so the house was packed for the show. Cosby killed that night and because of it, he was signed to co-star in the history-making television show, "I SPY," the first truly integrated TV series.
The last time I talked with Cosby was in 1965, and he confessed to me that the most enjoyment in his life other than friends and family came in those early, lean years in Greenwich Village in the '60s, and I have to agree with him. They were awesome; a veritable cultural revolution.
Cosby deserves the Mark Twain Award. Speaking of Mark Twain, I was fortunate enough to do two Arthur Miller plays in New York with Hal Hollbrook whose "Mark Twain Tonight" show is among the world's best ... but that's another story.