05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Cos. He's a man of a thousand faces and a million moves. He's a clown, a teacher, a power junkie, a philanthropist, a jock, a sage, a plutocrat, a naughty Bodhisattva, a big overgrown kid. He's the dad we all wish we had. For five years, ever since The Cosby Show hit the air, he has been enshrined in America's imagination as the newest father of his country. Viewers of all ages say he is their most respected citizen and favorite arbiter of manners and morals. He is infinitely intricate, but he proffers a simple vision of the good life. Get back to basics, he tells us. Love each other, join together in families and in neighborhoods, have children and teach them the value of discipline, hard work and mutual respect. It's an old-fashioned vision, but also profound and healing. It creates a common ground, a timeless island of shared humanity.
In Cosby's vision there is no place for greed or cruelty—and definitely no place for race prejudice. So he has simply abolished it from the world he has created on the screen. He has thrown a cloak of invisibility over a demon that divides and damages us all, and given us a heart-warming glimpse of what life might be like without its pernicious presence. And he has accomplished this with amazing artistry. When we watch him, we simply do not see the color of his skin, or we dismiss it as irrelevant. We see him as Everyman, a man like ourselves, and we watch his program as if we were watching our own lives—in fascination. Which may explain why The Cosby Show has topped the ratings four years in a row—a record surpassed only by All in the Family. The domino effect of his superhit swept a dim spinoff (A Different World) into second place and transformed NBC from the weakest to the strongest of the major networks.
Cosby's TV character is Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, an obstetrician with a lawyer wife (Phylicia Rashad) and five lively kids—ranging in age, roughly like his, from 10 to 24. But Cosby concedes little more than a stethoscope to the role. As always, he plays the only character who can reveal the full richness of his temperament: Bill Cosby. And as always, that character loves children and senses with uncanny precision what they think and feel and need. Whether he's pitching invisible ones to eat pudding, describing remembered ones from the old neighborhood, telling about imaginary ones in his comedy act or joshing observable ones on his show, Cosby resonates with children like a tuning fork—in perfect pitch. They adore him.
His own children adore him—even though, as Cosby admits, he is a far from perfect parent. Obsessed with ambition, he has often pursued his career at the expense of his wife and children, and not many years ago the family situation was severely strained. Brilliant, shrewd and steel-willed, he knows what he wants and homes in on it like a success-seeking missile. At 52, he builds up his wind by sprinting 300 meters in about 40 seconds and then punishes his lungs by lighting a Cuban cigar the size of a tree trunk. Though his killer schedule often keeps him away from home, he calls wife Camille several times a day and keeps in close touch with all his children.
He discovered the meaning of family the hard way, growing up in a Philadelphia ghetto, the eldest of four boys. His father joined the Navy and all but disappeared; his mother cleaned house for white folks and often skipped supper so her sons could have enough to eat. In his teens he began to shape his rib-cracking tales about Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold. In 1964 he cut his first comedy album and a year later, on I Spy, became the first black to co-star in a prime-time dramatic series—a role that won him three Emmys in three seasons. After the show folded, Cosby's canny-funny phiz kept popping out of the tube to sell Jell-O and Coca-Cola.
Then came The Cosby Show, and oh, how the money rolled in. His fee in Vegas trampolined to $500,000 a week, and his books (Fatherhood, Time Flies) netted more than $4 million—a figure that Love and Marriage, out last month, will enlarge. Cosby owns two executive jets and 22 automobiles, and last year donated $20 million to a college for black women. With an annual income estimated as high as $57 million, he may be the first black billionaire. But that, he would surely say, isn't the point. The point is that he is a human billionaire.