"Now wait just a minute," says Phylicia, in the authoritative tones of Clair Huxtable, the nation's No. 1 wife and mom on The Cosby Show. Ahmad's riff brings out the get-down side in the queenly Phylicia. "Just because you had me wear a sweatband while I was pregnant," she says, "doesn't mean this baby is going to be an athlete. She's going to be an artist, a ballerina!"
Dancer or tennis ace, Condola Phylea is already a celebrity. Last season she made weekly guest appearances on Cosby, albeit hidden by grocery bags or a hole scooped out of the mattress on Clair's side of the bed while Phylicia was pregnant. (The producers decided that five Huxtable kids were enough for the mighty Cosby.) These days, at NBC's Brooklyn studio, Condola is treated like the littlest member of the TV family. All the Cosby kids play with her, and 8-year-old Keshia Knight Pulliam likes to recall that she talked to Condola in Phylicia's stomach before she was born. The baby—who comes to the studio with her mother and nanny from the Ra-shads' rambling, five-bedroom stone-and-stucco house in suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y.—stays in her mother's dressing room, which Cosby has filled with toys and baby furniture. "You have to know Bill to know how big his heart is," says Phylicia of her co-star, who often seems arrogant to outsiders. "He stays in your corner through thick and thin." The father of five, Cosby is a softie for Condola. When her crying interrupts a scene, he gruffly jokes, "Bring that baby to her mother, the perpetrator."
Condola—who was born 13 months after her father proposed to Phylicia in front of 40 million viewers during a pre-game show before a Jets-Lions football game—is giving Phylicia, 39, and Ahmad, 37, a second round of parenting. "Condola has made me softer," says Phylicia, who has a 14-year-old son, Billy, by a previous marriage. "I don't mind getting up in the night and being tired because I know she won't be a baby very long." Ahmad, who likes buying hand-tailored suits and collecting antique sports cars, now equally enjoys staying home with his wife and daughter. On breaks from his job as an anchor on NBC's NFL pre-game shows, Rashad frequently takes his daughter with him to the jogging track. "This one is going to be spoiled," says Ahmad, who has three children—Keva, 17, Maiysha, 13, and Ahmad Jr., 9—by a previous marriage.
If ever there were doubts about Cosby's Father Knows Best image, his matchmaking with the Rashads should dispel them. He introduced the couple two years ago and gave the bride away a year later at the Church of the Masters in New York. O.J. Simpson was best man, and the matron of honor was Phylicia's sister, Debbie Allen, 37, star of TV's Fame. "Bill strutted up the aisle all proud and making jokes," recalls Phylicia. "Ahmad was watching a football game in the limo until the last minute. But when I looked at him, so handsome in his tux, I knew what it was like to marry a prince."
Ahmad, of course, gets credit for asking his pal Cosby to introduce him to Phylicia. "She was so beautiful, and there was a calmness about her that came through on the air," he explains. Phylicia was in no mood for romance. She had been married twice before. First in 1973 to New York dentist William Bowles, Billy's father. The marriage ended after two years because, says Dr. Bowles, "we were both young and headstrong about our careers." In 1978 she wed Victor Willis of the Village People (they divorced two years later). Even her friends are puzzled by her marriage to singer Willis. ("The only thing they had in common was show business," says one.) "My life was full with Billy and the show, and I did not want to remarry," says the actress, adding sharply, "I didn't learn anything from my previous marriages."
Still, Phylicia let Cosby talk her into a meeting with Ahmad. He took her to the People's Choice Awards in L.A. When Ahmad arrived in a rented tux, the athlete won her heart with his makeshift attire. "He showed me that his pants were held together with a paper clip, and the sleeves, which were too short for his long arms, had been extended with rubber bands. He was so honest and funny that I thought, 'This is nice.' "
They dated casually for several months. Then on Thanksgiving Day he made his pregame marriage proposal across the airwaves. Fortunately, Phylicia, who was fetched to a control room to give her answer, did not make Ahmad "look like a turkey," as he had feared. She said "Yes" before a nation of well-wishers. Cosby complained that Ahmad made life miserable for other husbands: "My wife came downstairs and cracked me on the head, saying, 'Why didn't you propose to me like that?' I explained, 'I wasn't on TV then, dear.' She said, 'Well, you could have done something!' "
"I was surprised because we'd never talked about getting married," says Phylicia, "but it seemed so right that there was nothing to say but yes."
The daughter of a Houston dentist and his wife, a published poet, Phylicia Ayers-Allen comes from a line of achievers. (In addition to sister Debbie, Phylicia has an older brother, Tex, a jazz musician, and a younger brother, Hugh, a recent college graduate.) Her parents divorced when Phylicia was 6. She was raised by her mother. Phylicia explains, "All the women in my family are doers. Every morning I'd see my mother upstairs writing."
Before she became famous as TV's Mrs. Cosby, Phylicia was known mostly as Debbie Allen's older sister. She insists there was no rivalry between them, but when they were children, she admits, she felt utterly outshone by Debbie. "I thought I was ugly," Phylicia says quietly. Then in sixth grade she gave a reading at a song festival. "I stood there in the light in a pretty dress, and I felt beautiful. I thought, 'This [performing] is what I'll do.' "
After graduating magna cum laude from Howard University in 1970 with a major in fine arts, Phylicia went to New York, where she worked off-Broadway before being cast as publicist Courtney Wright on the ABC soap One Life to Live. After a year on the soap, Phylicia learned of the Cosby auditions. Phylicia—who has the genteel manner and looks of Cosby's real wife, Camille—won the role of Clair. "Everybody who could walk tried out, but Bill told me I got the part by being Billy's mom," she says. "He said I did the scenes—about homework—with a knowing look in my eye."
On the set, Phylicia is more older friend than mom to the Cosby teens. Fourteen-year-old Tempestt Bledsoe kids Phylicia about taking hours in makeup but has looked to her for advice on acting and instruction in meditation, which Phylicia practices daily. Malcolm-Jamal Warner, 17, gives her the ultimate accolade. "Sometimes she acts so silly it's hard to believe she's somebody's mom."
The youngest of six children, Ahmad was born Bobby Moore (he took his Muslim name, which means Admirable One Led To Truth, in 1973). He was raised in Tacoma, Wash., where his father worked as a barber. The only black member of a Little League football team when he was 10, Rashad says he was kept from playing for the whole season by a racist coach. "I might have hated the guy," says Ahmad, "but I always felt there would be a time when I'd show him."
There was. A miracle pass receiver known for his dancing fakes, Rashad actually began his career as a running back at the University of Oregon, where he was named All-America. He played pro football for St. Louis, Buffalo and Seattle before joining the Minnesota Vikings in 1976. By the time he retired in 1982 to work as an analyst at NBC Sports, he had caught 495 passes, many of them in the last seconds of the game. "I'd prey on the fact that everybody else was discombobulated, then I'd make my move." Rashad was never a typical jock. "Sports is only entertainment," he says. "I played as hard as I could, had fun and then went home. I don't see the point in spending hours reliving the game in a bar."
In his four years as a reporter and commentator for NBC's sports shows, Ahmad has scored with his low-key style. "He knows the game, of course," says NFL '87 host Bob Costas, "but what distinguishes Ahmad is his personality. Viewers know he's a good guy." While his wife branches out into TV movies (she plans to co-star with Oprah
Winfrey in Women of Brewster Place), Rashad has hopes for a pilot he just made for The Family Show, a syndicated talkathon about "real families that have stuck together."
On weekends, Ahmad can usually be found kibitzing with Phylicia in the kitchen. "He watches and I cook," says Phylicia, who prepares all the meals herself. Before Condola was born she got up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast. "We're talking eggs and grits, not some cheese danish," she says.
The Rashads—who have taken yours, mine and ours vacations with all the children—say that blending their families is no problem. Ahmad's children spend every summer with them. Ahmad and Billy play basketball together, and Billy, his mom says, loves showing off the latest dance steps for Condola. Billy declines interviews, saying, "I just want to be regular," but when his mother asked him about her marrying Ahmad, he replied, "That would be chill." Last June, however, Billy decided to move in with his father, who has never remarried and lives five minutes away. His father says it's a mutual decision, not a sign of discord in the new family. "Phylicia's been a wonderful mother to Billy," says Dr. Bowles, "but once he reached 14, like a lot of boys whose folks are divorced, he wanted to live with his dad."
Real family life may not be as neatly resolved as a Cosby episode, but don't tell that to the romantic Rashads. "Phylicia makes me feel so proud of her that I could pop," says Ahmad. Gazing over at Condola in her husband's lap, Phylicia says softly, "Look at that, she adores him."
In one enormous hand, former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Ahmad Rashad hoists his 22-lb., 11-month-old daughter like so much pink-bootied pigskin. Then he launches into a sportscaster's version of his dreams for his child. "She's going to be a great tennis player," he predicts, bouncing Condola on one broad knee. "Can't you just see it," he says to his wife, Phylicia, announcing Condola's future as if he were in his anchor booth as an NBC sports analyst. "Ladies and gentleman, here we are at Wimbledon in the year 2002, with that sensation, Miss Condola Phylea Rashad, playing women's doubles with Camera Ashe, Arthur's baby, and mixed doubles with Kevin McEnroe, John and Tatum's child. The crowd will go wild."