Ad Babylon: Bill Cosby Behind The Curtain

Almost everyone I spoke to in advertising who has ever worked with Bill Cosby called him “a nasty man.”  His demands for his dressing room were legendary, and included a case of Dom Pérignon, a cappuccino maker, and three boxes of illegal Cohiba cigars that each went for about $1,000 — and you had to get them through a “contact.”

In making the JELL-O Pudding pop spots, Cosby demanded three changes of wardrobe per kid, that had to sit unused, to be messengered to his home after the shoot — his way of getting free clothing for his own children.

But displaying greed and arrogance on a staggering level is not a crime in America. In fact, if you’re a powerful celebrity like Cosby, that sense of entitlement is not only allowed, but is enabled.

One music producer told me about a literal way that Cosby showed off his cloak of invincibility. He insisted on sitting hidden behind a black velvet curtain; only one guy was allowed “behind the curtain” to speak or interact with him while he was working in the studio.



The feeling of impenetrability only grew. I interviewed lots of people who offered behind-the-scenes stories about Cosby in advertising. Interestingly, two of these stories have to do with Cosby as a dad figure. They demonstrate his distressing bipolarity on the subject. Here they are:

Y & R producer on JELL-O Pudding: “Cosby arrived on the set and announced, ‘I have to be out of here by 2:30 pm. I have a tennis lesson.’

“The kid hired to work with Cosby was an adorable five-year-old little African-American boy named Jules. And hours into the shoot, he was getting very tired.  He was tired because Cosby kept flubbing his lines, and they had to do the scene over and over. The kid’s attention span was waning, and the director kept saying, ‘Okay, Jules, come on. Focus.’

“After a while, Cosby couldn’t take it. He took the bowl of pudding, picked it up, and pushed it right into Jules’ face. Bam. It was scary. The kid really started wailing.

"We had to carry him off while he was still crying, and clean him up backstage.  His mother actually made him apologize to Cosby.  I just kept wondering how damaged this kid would be when he grew up.

“No one said anything to Cosby. He was like a God. Everyone protected him. But I was mortified.

“I kept the film in the editing room. I pulled that tape that had the pudding thing on it and kept the print and the negative for a couple of weeks. Then I got word that my boss wanted to see me. He called me in and said ‘We know you have the negative and the positive. Hand it over.’ I had to — otherwise I would have lost my job.

“But I never stopped feeling bad for that kid. There was a plant in the editing room that was dying. We named it Jules, and brought it back to life, because we all felt so terrible about what had happened.”

Production company owner, working on Coca-Cola commercials for McCann Erickson:“We shot with him six times in Los Angeles for Coke commercials for McCann in the early ‘80s.  Each time his wardrobe consisted of a red-and-white-striped jogging suit, which, at that time, cost maybe $50.

“For every single shoot, the demands were the same: His stylist in New York would buy him Missoni sweaters, handmade shoes, jackets, and suits, and pack them into brand new Louis Vuitton luggage, and FedEx the suitcases to his home in L.A.

“There were always young women around him, different faces every time.  It made the atmosphere icky. At one point when I met with him at his house, he started going into this long sanctimonious speech about the plight of Polynesian women in America. It seemed odd, but he had two very tall Polynesian women hanging out in his house in silk bathrobes at the time.

“One of them was over six feet tall, and was a dancer in Tahoe.  He insisted that he wanted her in the Coke commercial. It made no sense for the story. The agency was up in arms.

“I was told by the agency to tell him we couldn’t do it because she wasn’t a member of SAG. He responded, ‘Did they tell you to tell me that?’

“Cosby owned one of the Coca-Cola bottling plants, he was one of the top brands in the world at the time, and he had Coke wrapped around his finger.  This was just one tiny example. He always just wanted to let you know that he was the boss and that he could control everything.

“He must have called the head of Coke.  Because I get a call from an agency producer five minutes later saying that Mr. Cosby’s friend was in and we could get a waiver.

 “I know that most celebrities can be demanding and arrogant, and there’s always a chasm between public and private.  But in the pantheon of jerks I worked with, he was number-one.”

Valerie Graves, creative director on print ad, 1994: I was a creative director at Uniworld, doing a campaign promoting historically black colleges, sponsored by Kraft/General Foods. The tag line was ‘American’s Black Colleges. Are you smart enough to go?’

“Of course, Cosby was famously doing the JELL-O commercials at the time. And we were told, Bill will do this print ad with you guys. But he will be shooting a JELL-O pudding commercial. You’ll have to wait. It could be a break or lunch or the end of the day.  But he’ll do it.

“He did see us at the end of the day. I was apprehensive about it. I’d heard horror stories having to do with women, and how disagreeable he was.  But we were going to do it, no matter what.

“At the end of the day, he breezed into the room where we were all set up. No entourage.

“By  then, I was a pretty experienced creative director. I had never [before] worked with such a consummate professional.  He was so able to deliver that product of Bill Cosby.

“The concept for the ad was a college kid in his room, and ‘Uncle Bill’ shows up with 10 cases of JELL-O Pudding, because that’s what every college kid needs.

“‘Okay, what are we doing? Where’s my co-star?’ he said as he met this kid. And tried to put him at ease. We had hired a photographer who Cosby liked, a white guy.  He started shooting Polaroids as Cosby and the kid worked.

“Cosby wasn’t happy with the degree of commitment he was getting from the kid.  So he took him to the side and talked to him. ‘I’ll be you and you be me,’ Cosby said, and showed him [what to do]. He was so generous to this kid who was a nobody. He was so at ease delivering the character. Every single shot of Cosby was usable.  It just depended on how the kid looked.

“Working with a star as big as Cosby, your staff is different. You could feel the presence of everyone’s desire to make an impression on Cosby.

“My art director, a white guy, was kind of bonding with the photographer and looking at the Polaroids. I was trying to get in there to look, but not succeeding. When they showed the one they chose to Cosby, he refused to look at it. He said, ‘Show it to her,’ pointing to me. I had no idea he was that aware of what was going on.

“He’s probably a very sick person who was too rich and famous.

“I don’t have any trouble believing some of the women’s stories. He’s a deeply flawed, kind of crazy guy. But there’s no doubt that he was dedicated to educating black people.

“You can be very wrong about some things, and right about others. In this case, he was right. “

7 comments about "Ad Babylon: Bill Cosby Behind The Curtain".
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  1. Steve Baldwin from Didit, January 15, 2016 at 10:15 a.m.

    I found this account chilling and believable, but not particularly surprising. I've worked with a number of famous people in my time; what's shocking is when you meet someone who doesn't suffer from "Great Man (or Great Woman) Syndrome." The old showbiz saying --  "be kind to those you meet on your way up because you'll meet those same people on your way down" -- directly applies here. 

  2. Don Perman from self, January 15, 2016 at 10:42 a.m.

    I found these accounts fascinating, from the awful to the appreciative one at the end.  Overall, an exceptional insight into this complex, highly flawed man.  Best, it blends commenary with reporting, an unusual feat.  More, please. Hold the JELL-O for me. though.

  3. Hank Stewart from Green Team, January 15, 2016 at 11:41 a.m.

    I had the "pleasure" of working with Mr. Cosby on a PSA many years ago. He was easily the least-pleasant, most-condescending person I've encountered in my career. His arrogance was stunning. I've worked with a handful of big name actors, and for the most part, they are at least civil. Not Cosby. I am shocked, but not at all surprised, by the stories in this piece. To quote Richard Ford, "He is a rare breed of asshole."

  4. Alan Wasserstrom from None, January 15, 2016 at 5:49 p.m.

    Very much appreciated a bit of a different look at Cosby.As a lawyer what I liked most was that this article was not written in accusatory terms but more a look at Cosby that I have not seen anywhere else.I've seen enough pretrial conviction of this man and though your well researced profile of him is not favorable it is not accusatory. So while this article painta a picture of a man who could do what he is accused of the anecdotes are well worth the read.

  5. Chuck Lantz from, network, January 15, 2016 at 6:15 p.m.

    There are lots of books on "how to become famous."  It's too bad there are none on "how to be famous", ... if you get me drift.

  6. Chuck Lantz from, network, January 15, 2016 at 6:18 p.m.

    ... oops.  That should be "if you get my drift."

    (When are we getting an "edit" function for these comments?  Or are we expected to actually use our brain before hitting "Submit"?  ... and where are my damned Cohiba cigars!!)

  7. Jim English from The Met Museum, January 19, 2016 at 1:48 a.m.

    Thanks Barbara,  those stories of Cosby are indeed revealing, and the one with the little boy, deeply upsetting.

    I'm not saying he should be, but I wonder if Cosby would be forgiven if he were to issue an apology.  He says he's sorry to the victims and accepts responsibility for his actions. He establishes a fund from his substantial fortune for the women he violated.  He cites personal issues (perhaps even the tragic death of his son) that compelled his actions.  I'm thinking a bit of our penitential former president, another Bill.  

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