Leaving the Nest
WHEN BILL COSBY AND PHYLICIA Rashad dance off the screen on the April 30 episode of The Cosby Show, the Huxtables of 10 Stigwood Avenue in Brooklyn will ascend to Sitcom Heaven and take their place among such great dynastic families as the Nelsons, Cleavers and Keatons.
The finale marks a coming of age for the three Cosby kids, who addled their TV dad from the first episode, on Sept. 20, 1984, through the last—208 shows in all. As Vanessa, Theo and Rudy, Tempestt Bledsoe, Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Keshia Knight Pulliam literally grew up on TV. Pulliam reports that when her 3-year-old brother, Mshon, sees reruns, he doesn't believe his eyes. "He says, 'That's a little girl,' " says Pulliam, 13, who has played Rudy since she was 4. "And I say, 'No, Mshon, that's Keshia.' "
Fittingly, the breakup of one of the most popular TV families of the '80s was as relentlessly upbeat as the series itself. "Everybody wants us to say it was a tear-filled moment, but we spent the last 10 shows counting down," says Warner, 21. "After eight years we were all very happy when we got to the end—even though one of the rare things about our show is that everyone honestly liked each other."
Warner even has fond memories of the rebellious Lisa Bonet, who played sister Denise. After spinning off to A Different World, Bonet returned to Cosby in 1988 but was later fired for "creative differences" and not invited to appear in the finale. Says Warner: "I admire the way she followed her own drummer."
For his part, Warner followed the drums that led to Hollywood, where he is developing a new series with Cosby and dating a 23-year-old actress. ("She's not famous," he says.) But Warner's mother, Pamela, is grateful that Cosby was taped at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, N.Y. "That was a stroke of genius on Bill's part," she says. "The kids were able to do their job and study without all the distractions. I don't think they would've turned out as well if the show had been shot in Hollywood." Adds Warner: "Bill wanted us to stay real."
Bledsoe, 18, who lives in New Jersey's Bergen County, defends Cosby against critics who thought that the show didn't ring true enough. "People would say, 'That's not a real black family,' " she says. "I don't think our color was an issue. We were a positive family image."
Born in Chicago, where she was tapped for the part of Vanessa (she and her divorced mom then relocated to the New York City area), Bledsoe had no problem reconciling her two-parent TV household with her real-life situation. "I saw my dad all the time," she says. "It wasn't an issue." Tempestt recalls the set as "a healthy place," thanks to Cosby's fabled firm hand. "But you could always talk to him. He took a parental interest in us."
Two years ago, when Bledsoe decided to major in finance at New York University, Cosby changed the taping schedule to allow her to attend school full-time, and he hung her 3.75 GPA report card on his dressing room wall. Of the considerable money each made, Tempestt, who plans to keep acting and is currently starring in the off-Broadway play From the Mississippi Delta, says, "We all have good starting points."
Pulliam, who attends a private school in New Jersey, intends to remain a thespian but also aspires to be a doctor, maybe a surgeon. "You get to cut people open and sew them back up," says the Newark native. "That's the fun part."
Despite their happy gazes into the future, each Cosby kid admits that the end of the line brought unexpected feelings. "I didn't think it would be emotional," says Bledsoe. "But when I went to say goodbye to Bill, it hit me. It was a good goodbye."
SABRINA McFARLAND in New Jersey and TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles