Profile of Bill Cosby, who'll receive the Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center

HEY, HEY, HEY: Bill Cosby's grandfather was a "savior for me."
HEY, HEY, HEY: Bill Cosby's grandfather was a "savior for me." (1998 Photo By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

Where does the gift come from? For Bill Cosby, it begins in a housing project in North Philadelphia. He's 6, maybe 7 years old. He's sitting at the knee of his father's father, hoping for a quarter. But first he has to listen.

Samuel Russell Cosby Sr. read the Bible, and told his grandson the stories. Young William didn't exactly listen -- "To this day, I don't know the names he said" -- but he sure enough heard. The details of the stories, of course, weren't as important as the way his grandfather told them -- his tone, his pace, the look on his face. It was how you told it, not what.

All of it stuck with the kid. A couple of decades later, when he was honing his own brilliant stories on a nightclub stage, Cosby would hear it again in his own voice.

"You learned storytelling from a man like this," Cosby says. He's on the phone from Los Angeles, and he's in career-reminiscence mode. He'll be in Washington on Monday night to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. There's a big to-do in his honor, with celebrity presenters (Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Carl Reiner). It's basically a comedy Hall of Fame induction ceremony. So Cosby, 72, is reflecting.

"So [granddad] says, 'This is from the book of something, and then he'd start telling it. Telling it." Not preaching, just telling. "Somehow it pertained to my life, some wonderful lesson."

Little Cos absorbed it, but he was mostly focused on the quarter. Granddad kept his change in a sock, which he kept tucked into his belt. If the boy sat still and listened long enough, his grandfather would pull a coin from his sock-purse.

"He'd say, 'Take this quarter, put it in the bank. Save it. Don't go wasting it on ice cream!' "

So the boy diligently squirreled away Grandpa's quarters and then one day he . . .

"What?! Are you drunk?" Cosby sputters. "I went and got some ice cream! It was five cents a dip in those days. With a sugar cone."

In Cosby's retelling, Granddad Sam takes on mythic proportions. He's practically John Henry and Paul Bunyan. Worked for 60 years in a foundry! Walked five miles to and from work, even in the driving snow! Never stopped to eat lunch during the workday! "He just kept right on working," Cosby says.

In fact, Cosby considers his grandfather, who died in 1977 at age 95, a "savior for me in my life," almost a surrogate father. Despite the semi-idealized stories of childhood that would propel his career, despite his later criticism of inner-city youth and absentee fathers, Cosby's relationship with his own father was troubled. William Henry Cosby Sr. joined the Navy soon after Bill was born and left his mother, Anna, a domestic worker, largely on her own with their three sons. Bill still speaks bitterly about him. "My father was not to be found," he says. "He gave me very little information. He did not want any responsibility. He never got the memo about life."

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