It’s hard to believe that comedian, actor, and author Bill Cosby never won an Emmy for his groundbreaking NBC sitcom “The Cosby Show,” but he’s collected plenty of hardware in his long and illustrious career. During his run on NBC’s “I Spy” show, Cosby would become the first African-American to win an Emmy Award. Cosby was honored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences by winning the trophy in the Lead Actor category on this day in 1966.
Cosby played trainer and undercover secret agent “Alexander Scott” alongside Robert Culp, who played tennis journeyman “Kelly Robinson.”
The show debuted in 1965 and was a milestone moment as it featured Cosby as the first African-American actor in a leading role.
Also noteworthy was that Cosby was never made to look inferior alongside Culp, which was reportedly part of an agreement made by the actors and show producers to not let race bog down the program.
Working for the Pentagon, the agents were often engaged in hijinks under the guise of being traveling “tennis bums” who squared off against wealthy and connected individuals. “I Spy” was indeed a hit, but many stations in the South banned the program because of Cosby’s top billing.
Watch Cosby in “I Spy” here:
Cosby wasn’t actually intended to get the role as an older actor was part of producer Sheldon Leonard’s plans. However, Leonard was wowed by Cosby’s stand-up comedy routine and decided to cast the rookie in the prime-time series.
A mix of comedy, suspense, drama, and action, “I Spy” occupied a unique slice of the television landscape. Even more remarkable, the onscreen chemistry between Cosby and Culp transferred into their real lives and the pair reunited several times after the show’s three-season run ended in 1968. In his time on the show, Cosby consecutively won the award three years straight and remains the only actor to have done so. Cosby also maintains the records for most Primetime Emmy wins as well.
Culp joined his old friend on the set of “The Cosby Show” in 1987 for the episode, “Bald and Beautiful.” Culp played a friend of “Dr. Cliff Huxtable,” Scott Kelly,” which was a clever nod to their names on “I Spy.”
Watch the “Bald and Beautiful” episode here:
In 1994, they starred in a CBS television movie titled “I Spy Returns” as fathers looking to rescue their children who followed in their spy footsteps. Culp passed away at the age of 79 in 2010.
Cosby offered a touching interview to the “Los Angeles Times,” remembering his close ties with Culp and how his wife, Camille, left the boys to their inside jokes.
“Even to this day, [Cosby's wife] Camille would just walk away when Bob and I got together,” Cosby said during an interview just days after Culp’s death in 2010. “We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything.”
Culp also spoke fondly of Cosby and the show, saying in 1994, “No other Black man and no other White man would have made it work. We just got lucky. We met and decided that we liked each other. Everything else for me and Bill took second position to that. Both of us had total trust in each other.”
Culp’s humility in facing Cosby in the running for the Emmy Awards was also mentioned in the Times piece, with Cosby worried about what his friend thought of losing to an unproven actor.
“Bob was the actor and I was the entertainer,” Cosby shared. “The day after each of those awards, I went to work with a feeling of guilt and darn near embarrassment. As soon as Bob appeared at work, he would come and say, ‘How you feeling?’ I said, OK. The next thing I knew, I had forgotten all about the Emmy.”
We won’t forget this significant and powerful moment, though, Mr. Cosby.