Growing, Growing, Grown

FILMED July 1969

Are you wondering why Dr. Cliff Huxtable said he was Chester Kincaid? Are you confused because Theo and his three younger sisters are nowhere in sight? Don’t be. This isn’t THE COSBY SHOW. It’s THE BILL COSBY SHOW, which predated THE COSBY SHOW by fifteen years.

Stephen Bowie, when writing on THE CLASSIC TV HISTORY BLOG about THE BILL COSBY SHOW and THE COSBY SHOW, stated:

The latter is the mega-popular, audience-friendly family sitcom that kept NBC in business during the eighties. The former is the black sheep of the Cosby canon, a forgotten but far superior series in which the comedian took chances … It doesn’t look or feel like any other situation comedy from the time. There’s no laugh track, no ensemble of colorful sidekicks mugging for attention. … Many of the directors (Harvey Hart, Ralph Senensky, Seymour Robbie) had more experience working with dramatic material than with comedy.

I will insert here, I had more experience working with dramatic material than with FILM comedy.

In the aftermath of THE THOLIAN WEB firing on STAR TREK, an old associate from my days at CBS, someone with whom I had no ongoing contact, affected my current state of ongoing unemployment. Now working as an agency rep servicing a new Bill Cosby show, he recommended me to the producers, and I was booked to direct the current show under discussion.

THE BILL COSBY SHOW was filmed at the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank. I was very familiar with the studio, having filmed eleven episodes of THE FBI there, so the butterflies-in-the-stomach feelings that still accompanied my start of the first show of a new series were somewhat allayed.

I had worked with Bill Cosby two years before when I directed an episode of I SPY. It had been filmed, as all episodes for that series were filmed, on location. The series was a trailblazer in television production, because rather than filming in Hollywood and relying on stock footage for its international travels, it filmed in Athens, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Venice, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Acapulco, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Morocco. And which of those exotic locations did I get to go to for my episode? None of them! I filmed at Big Bear Lake, California, located a scant 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

I equated directing many different series to what it must have been like as a contract director thirty years before at one of the major studios. The variety of genres for which I was booked was not unlike what those directors faced when they were assigned to whatever production received the go-ahead as they became available upon finishing their current assignment.

Twenty-one years later in 1990, Jerry Seinfeld on his successful nine-year-run SEINFELD series, established a precedent of scripts that were based on nothing. I submit that THE BILL COSBY SHOW was doing that in 1969. Or if its scripts were not quite based on nothing, they were sometimes based on such incompatible combinations that made creating a script based on nothing an absolute cakewalk. As an example: the current script that was based on a bite plate and a garbage truck.

There is a strange thing about my recall of this series. After GROWING, GROWING, GROWN I directed three more episodes, but I don’t remember any of the producers, I don’t remember any script conferences, any associations except those on the set. I take that back. I remember that one of the young members of the production staff was exuberantly excited and effusively vocal about the dailies of the school dance. He couldn’t hide his admiration and wonderment that a sequence so vividly contemporary had been directed by someone so “ancient”. I was forty-six years old at the time.

I have spoken many times about the depth of talent in the acting community, but the brutal fact is that there were not enough jobs to keep all of them employed. I had never met Danny Llorens before he played Norman in this production. I never saw him again after the two days he worked. In the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) I have now learned that GROWING, GROWING, GROWN was his first film. The following year he appeared in two more television episodes, and then disappeared from the profession, denied a career for which he had a talent and to which he obviously aspired. And there were so many Danny Llorens in Hollywood.

Although Samuel Goldwyn once said that messages should only be sent by Western Union, it was still au courant to include a message in even a half-hour comedy. I liked the subtle unobtrusive way an old gem from Dr. Seuss was delivered:Be yourself, because those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.”

A question I deplore that I have been asked constantly in interviews is, “What was it like directing” … and a star was named? My problem with the question is that it assumes that the director is an auteur with a star obligated to obey his every command. I don’t happen to regard directing in that light. As that question related to the current show, it inferred that it must have been difficult giving directions to Bill Cosby. THE BILL COSBY SHOW had been developed with Cosby’s complete involvement; he was one of the three creators of the series, and Chester Kincaid was essentially the character Bill had created in his years as a stand-up comedian before his emergence as a film star in I SPY. It was not my job to come in and tell him how to play this role, to tell him how to play himself. My goal was to connect with the rhythm and tempo of his character and stage the scenes accordingly. I must have done something right. I was booked to return in October for three more episodes.

The Journey Continues

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9 Responses to Growing, Growing, Grown

  1. Bill Rodebaugh says:

    How was it to work with Bill Cosby? He seemed to have to be the in charge type on productions from what I’ve read.

    Ralph, how did the crew do the opening sequence on I SPY? (the cool tennis star into spy with the silouette of Robert Culp? Was he filmed against a white screen and how would you make the actor look like a shadow?

    Was the Bill Cosby 1969 show not popular in the ratings?



    • Ralph says:

      It was wonderful working with Bill Cosby. He is an enormously gifted talent, and had already proved on I SPY that he was a very fine actor. Was he an in charge type? You bet! But that doesn’t mean that he was trying to run the show. He knew what worked for him and as long as a director didn’t try to have him do something that he realized was not right for him, there was no problem.I had no problem.

      The opening billboard of I SPY like the billboards for all of the shows was a combination of on set filming and post production work in the lab that could also involve animation.And finally the show was cancelled after two seasons because it was not beating its competition.

  2. John Dayton says:

    A word about Bill – in 1961 when I was 14 years old I got my first TV job as a “goffer” on a new show entitled “The MIke Douglas Show” – black and white, live, 5 days a week – a show produced by KYW-TV Cleveland (yes, Mike began in Cleveland) the show was designed to compete with a woman named Dorothy Fuldheim who had a high-rated live show on another channel — the producer Woody Fraser (brilliant!) chose a celebrity who stayed in Cleveland for the week and Co-Hosted the show with Mike. Why do I mention this?? Because Bill Cosby was one of our first Co-Hosts that first summer (strangely The MIke Douglas Show is not on Bill’s IMDB) — Bill was one of the sweetest, kindest, soft-spoken, generous and brilliantly funny man I ever met — KYW printed up headshots for the weekly celebs — I still have mine which Bill signed “To Johnny, this is one of the first I’ve ever signed. I’m sure we’ll work again together, Bill” Unfortunately that never happened. I still hope that I’ll run into him socially some day. We had a fabulous time on the show and I am positive he remembers it fondly.

    I had never seen this show before, and I agree, it’s far superior to the later “Cosby” — the Kincaid you see in the show was the Bill I had the great privilege of meeting and working with for one week long ago.

    • Ralph says:

      I must put in a word in defense of the later THE COSBY SHOW. Because of the injustice to the earlier THE BILL COSBY SHOW, it is too easy to denigrate his later creation. It was produced with the same care and talent as his earlier work, and if its format was basically more conventional and commercial, it was still not without its potential risk while making a social comment. True it was another in the endless stream of family sitcoms that inundated the networks, but it did have a distinction. It was the ONLY one where the family was Afro-American, where the father was a successful professional man, and where the presentation owed more to THE WALTONS than to AMOS AND ANDY. And that was a FIRST for television!

  3. Phil says:

    I liked this episode. We can see in the opening segment what a good straight man Bill Cosby can be and it was evident in many other episodes.

    Regarding the scene with Chet driving the garbage truck, what street was that? It didn’t look like a backlot. Was Bill really driving(!) the truck?

    • Ralph says:

      I’m not sure what street we used to film the garbage truck, but it was in Burbank near the studio. We also filmed the apartment house where Chet picked up his date, probably on the same street. And I do think that was Bill driving.

  4. Charles Ilardi says:

    I remember being 8 years old watching this episode. My family loved Bill Cosby, we loved this show, and we loved comedy shows without a laugh track. I really appreciated the “straight-forward” (i.e., not “slapsticky”) approach to the comedy. The scene with the garbage truck was one of my favorite comedy scenes from my youth-looking at it now, I can say it was handled in much the same way Norman Z McLeod handled the comedy in W C Fields’ classic “It’s a Gift”.

  5. Jay Raskin says:

    I am wondering if you knew when the Bill Cosby Show started filming. One of the accusers claims she was attacked in a bungalow on the set of the Bill Cosby. I am 100% positive that she is making it all up. She said it happened just after an Earthquake in fall, 1969. There was only one Earthquake in L.A. that year, on April 28th, which means she must have been attacked within two weeks of that date, before May 10th.
    I am trying to find out if the Bill Cosby Show was actually filming at Warner Brothers during that time. If it wasn’t in production at that time then her charge is a lie.
    I found an article which describes the filming of “The Best Hook Shot in the World” on May 25th. This however seems to describe a scene on location. I suspect that the series was not shooting yet on the Warner Brothers set.
    I am wondering how to find out when shooting on the Warner Brother Set actually began?

    • Ralph says:

      As you can see, this was the first Cosby show I i directed and I worked in July 1969. I know they had been in production for a while, but I don’t know when they started. The most authentic way to find out about this would be to go to the studio production records. A more round about way would be to contact other directors of those early shows (if they’re still alive) and see if they have records of when they worked. Wish I could be of more help.

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