Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Bill Cosby tried to purchase the rights to the Amos and Andy TV series to keep it off the air.
A very popular urban legend is that entertainer Bill Cosby bought the rights to the Little Rascals so that they would no longer be aired, because Cosby found the show offensive due to its jokes involving the African-American character, Buckwheat.
That story is false (here’s Snopes on the subject).
However, a similar story has also popped up involving the TV series Amos and Andy (here’s someone asking about it on answers.com and here is an article from a few years back saying “A rumor, which might be nothing more than an Urban Legend, claims that it is entertainer Bill Cosby who bought the rights to the television sitcom and is responsible for keeping it off the air.”), and in this case, there actually is a little more to it than the Little Rascals story, which seems to have just been made up from whole cloth.
So what’s the truth?
It is not true that Bill Cosby purchased the rights to the Amos and Andy television series (CBS currently owns the rights).
It is also not true that Cosby ever TRIED to purchase the rights to the program in the interest of keeping the program off of the air.
However, Cosby DID play a (slight) role in the series NOT being on the air.
The Amos and Andy television series spun out of the popular Amos and Andy radio show in 1951.
Unlike the radio show, the TV series actually (out of necessity) had African-American actors play the characters in the series.
The radio show had seen its share of protests, but nothing like the protests reserved for the television program, which was denounced right from the start for its portrayals of African-Americans.
Due to protests (and some boycotting), the main sponsor for the show, Bratz Beer, pulled out of sponsoring the show in 1953, and the show ended soon after.
However, it continued to be a popular show in syndication well after its cancellation.
It was here that people like Bill Cosby got involved. During the late 1960s, the NAACP began to put increasing pressure on CBS to pull the show from syndication, and the growing civil rights movement made it a much larger issue than it had been in the past.
By this point in time, Cosby (who was already a noted comedian) became famous as the co-lead on the hit series, I Spy…
A petition was sent out signed by a number of notable entertainers, all asking for the show to be removed from syndication. Cosby was a prominent supporter of the petition.
In 1969, Cosby was interviewed in Playboy magazine, and he made his thoughts on Amos and Andy quite clear…
PLAYBOY: To a very real extent, your role in I Spy helped open up the television industry to black performers. Do you think the representation of Negroes on TV has improved enough since you began the series in 1965?
COSBY: Well, we’ve certainly come a long way from black cats who were bug-eyed, afraid of ghosts and always saying things like “Feet, don’t leave me now.” Guys like Mantan Moreland, Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best never hit anybody, never fought back and were always scared white. And we don’t see the mass stupidity of Amos ‘n’ Andy anymore. That show still gets to me, man. Each time I name an Amos ‘n’ Andy character, try to imagine these guys as white, and you won’t be able to: You had Lightnin’, who was slow in every possible way; Calhoun, the lawyer who never got anybody out of trouble and never went into court prepared; Kingfish, the conniver, who was always saying, “Yeah, but brother Andy…”; and Andy himself, who wasn’t too bright, either. Like, nobody on that show was bright except Amos, the cab driver, who we hardly ever heard from. And then there was Kingfish’s wife, Sapphire; every time he came through that door, she’d be chewing him out for something. Now, audiences weren’t supposed to laugh with these people; they were supposed to laugh at them, because they were so dumb. And while that show was on, there was nothing else on the air to counterbalance these stereotypes. It was almost as if Poles were exclusively presented as characters in Polish jokes. Well, you’re just not going to believe that all Polish people are really dumb; but if that’s all you got to see about ’em, you might start to believe it. And they’d understandably resent it. Or the same thing about Jewish people hoarding money. You have to show things besides stereotypes.
And by the end of the decade, CBS had officially pulled the show from syndication, and it has never returned, nor has CBS pursued an official DVD release. They seem content with letting the series fade into obscurity (while also defending their rights from those who try to sell bootleg copies of the series through mail order).
As an amusing aside, later in that interview, Cosby had this to say about depicting racial issues in television…
PLAYBOY: Do you think that a series with a nonstereotyped all-black cast could be successful on TV today?
COSBY: Probably not. The kind of show you mean would have to be about the life of a black family, with all its struggles. But if you’re really going to do a series about a black family, you’re going to have to bring out the heavy; and who is the heavy but the white bigot? This would be very painful for most whites to see, a show that talks about the white man and puts him down. It would strike indifferent whites as dangerous; it would be called controversial and they probably wouldn’t want to tune in. But when there’s a right and a wrong, where’s the controversy? The white bigot is wrong. The indifferent person sitting on the fence is wrong. Instead of having occasional shows that present the black viewpoint on educational channels, the networks should be in there pitching now.
I just found that so fascinating, as Cosby is BASICALLY describing All in the Family in a way, isn’t he?
I can only imagine how surprised he was to see just two short years later a white bigot appear on TV and shown to be just as ridiculous as Cosby felt such a character should be treated!
The legend is…
Thanks to Bill Cosby and Playboy magazine for the neat quotes!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.