At least on social media, that is.
Perhaps buoyed by several recent — and scarcely reported — court victories and improved health, legendary comedian Bill Cosby has returned to Twitter to celebrate Black History Month.
In a slew of tweets that began during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January and throughout this month, the superstar has touted African-American history, listing pioneers and their accomplishments.
Earlier Monday, Cosby tweeted “Happy 90th Birthday to one of the greatest actors, Sidney Poitier,” just moments after tweeting, “Happy 80th Birthday to Jazz Legend Nancy Wilson.”
He’s noted the accomplishments of Katherine Johnson of “Hidden Figures” fame, Rachel and Jackie Robinson, and Calvin Brown, Cosby’s stunt double in “I Spy,” the NBC television hit from the 1960s.
Ironically, NBC on Sunday ran a 90th anniversary special hosted by Kelsey Grammer, in which the network journeyed through its long history, highlighting some of the most notable shows in television history such as “Saturday Night Live,” Seinfeld” and “Cheers.”
However, there was no mention of “I Spy,” the groundbreaking show that was the first American television drama to feature a black actor, Cosby, in the lead role.
Cosby’s lawyer Angela Agrusa and his spokesman, Andrew Wyatt of the Purpose PR Firm, responded to NBC’s snub.
“Cosby’s place in the history of American television — particularly by attacking racism by creating widely loved shows that realistically portrayed Black Americans on television — has earned him the right to be treated fairly and justly by society — to be assumed innocent and to be tried in a courtroom before an impartial judge and jury,” Agrusa and Wyatt said in the statement. “Yet, denied of those rights, Cosby has instead been tried in the court of public opinion and NBC has become his would-be executioner attempting to erase his work from its rightful place in creating much of the network’s historic success. Shame on NBC.”
Cosby himself took a jab at NBC, tweeting the hashtags “#NBC- No Bill Cosby,” “#LegacyCantBeAbolished” and “#TheWorldSeesTheTruth.”
Also, Cosby won a big court victory this week when a judge refused to allow the testimony of 12 of 13 alleged accusers of the comedian in his upcoming criminal trial.
“I Spy,” the hourlong weekly series that ran from 1965 to 1968, starred Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson and Cosby as Alexander Scott, American secret agents whose cover was that Kelly was a globetrotting top-seeded tennis player and Scott was his trainer.
“When I first heard Bill Cosby was the other half of this team, I said, ‘Wait a minute!’” Culp told the Los Angeles Times in 1965. “I knew he was a comedian, but could he act? Then I saw him work in our pilot film, and the guy is brilliant. … We have a rapport never seen on a screen before. It’s a kind of Clark Gable-Spencer Tracy relationship. We’re an inseparable team, a kind of Damon and Pythias. Bill and I together form what you will root for in the series.”
Culp, who died in 2007, received three consecutive Emmy nominations for his role in “I Spy” and was beat out each time by Cosby.
Cosby, who went on to star in several hit movies with Poitier, including the critically acclaimed and popular trilogy “Let’s Do It Again,” “Uptown Saturday Night” and “A Piece of the Action,” also brought more acclaim to the network in the 1980s with one of the most beloved sitcoms in history, “The Cosby Show.”
The show starred Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable and featured Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Lisa Bonet, Tempestt Bledsoe, Keshia Knight Pulliam and Sabrina Le Beauf.
TV Guide named the show “The Biggest TV Hit of the 1980s” and said it almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre and NBC’s ratings. Entertainment Weekly credited “The Cosby Show” with helping to make possible a larger variety of shows with predominately African-American casts such as “In Living Color” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
It also spawned the successful spinoff “A Different World,” keeping in tune with Cosby’s message of the importance of higher education, particularly for African-Americans.
The snub also comes as Cosby, who is facing criminal sex assault charges, continues to receive favorable court rulings in a host of defamation suits filed against him.
The star’s attorneys note that courts have begun to dismiss those lawsuits essentially as frivolous claims because Cosby or his spokespeople were simply defending him publicly.
Also, in earlier court appearances, Cosby has needed the assistance of handlers to enter and exit proceedings, but he’s looked much like himself recently.
“Our culture right now is sensitive to historical figures who have gotten into some trouble and Cosby is certainly a historical figure who is not received in our culture today as he was when he made history,” said Brenda Andrews, the president, publisher and owner of the historical black newspaper The Journal and Guide in Norfolk, Virginia.
“NBC could and should have found a way to include that history,” she said. “There should have been a way to include the ‘Cosby Show’ because he was America’s dad and they could have been some thought given to this that NBC could have celebrated that part of its history without given undue adulation to Cosby himself. … The case against him is still not resolved but this is something that you can’t ignore or take out.”
Newsday television critic Verne Gay, who profiled the NBC special, agreed.
“With this special, NBC has yet another landmark broadcast to add to 90 years of so many other radio and TV landmarks — the longest infomercial in history,” Gay wrote. “Clocking in at three hours — including real commercials, [the celebration] showers so many shows and so many stars with so much unblushing encomia that even Ron Popeil would be humbled.”
But it’s what was omitted that’s especially of interest, Gay said, addressing the elephant in the room.
For example, there’s little of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” — almost all of the tapes from the early years were erased. Cosby’s tapes are still well-preserved, however.
Deep into the program, just before closing credits, Grammer says, “If we left out any of your favorites, I promise to make it up to you on NBC’s 100th.”
But no one will likely complain too bitterly over the exclusion of, say, “Manimal” or “The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo,” Gay noted.
“What’s really missing here is Bill Cosby,” Gay said. “His name is not mentioned once. ‘I Spy’ isn’t even noted in passing. That was the first program in U.S. television history to have an African-American in a lead role. … Mention of ‘The Cosby Show’ finally arrives in the last part of the show, covered in just under a minute as Phylicia Rashad is briefly interviewed. After Carson, Cosby was arguably the single-most important individual in the history of the network.
“He’s been virtually edited out of that history,” Gay said. “It’s a lamentable omission but especially a reminder that an entire legacy has been effaced.”