Ed Driscoll

The Woody and Bill Show

In “The Cosby Mysteries” at Commentary, TV producer and Ricochet.com frontman Rob Long, whose show business debut involved being a producer on the other big NBC Thursday night comedy series, has a fun review of Mark Whitaker’s hagiographic profile of Bill Cosby, which apparently went to the printers just as numerous allegations concerning its subject were beginning to hit the fan. Rob begins his review by placing himself in the hot tub of a zillionare fellow TV producer, and proceeds from there:

The reason we were in the hot tub in the first place was that we had all gone for a chilly swim in the Pacific Ocean just steps away from the bleached-wood deck that abutted the sprawling mansion the man owned. And the reason he owned that multimillion dollar piece of real estate was that his method for getting very rich running television comedies was foolproof.

Except for this: The trick to making a lot of money in television comedy is, first, your show has to be a hit. Nothing pays quite as well as a hit comedy. And the trick to comedy, as everyone knows, is timing.

For most of his astonishingly successful half-century in show business, Bill Cosby was in the right place at the right time. He emerged onto the comedy scene in the early 1960s, when the audience taste in comedy was moving from the tuxedo’ed nightclub comic to the storytelling style Cosby pioneered. By the middle of the decade, when American television audiences were eager for racially integrated casts, he co-starred with Robert Culp in a hit action-adventure show, I Spy. In the 1970s, he reaped a financial bonanza as one of the most sought-after commercial pitchmen in the country. And, in 1984, The Cosby Show premiered on the last-place television network, NBC, to ratings so celestial that they actually saved the network from collapse. In comedy, in business, in the culture, Bill Cosby was a master of timing.

Not so lucky, though, is his official biographer, Mark Whitaker, whose Cosby: His Life and Times was published last autumn directly into the teeth of the more than 30 rape accusations that have dogged the 77-year-old comedian. The book is a tedious and mostly slavish rehash of the ups and downs of Cosby’s amazing and trailblazing career in show business. We get snapshots of his early life, his teachers, his first halting experiments with stand-up comedy. We get endlessly detailed—and eye-glazingly boring—anecdotes about his early television series. We are told stories, pointlessly, about which hotel he and Culp, his I Spy co-star, decamped to in Tokyo during a trip to Japan. We are told stories about ponderous lectures he gave to his friends, his imperial (though always civilized) interactions with the writers and producers of his hit television shows, his struggles with fatherhood, his devotion to his wife.

When the sticky issue of Cosby’s infidelity forces its way into the narrative, it’s always cast in the past tense. He and his wife, Camille, are forever “working harder on their marriage.” They are said to have “moved on.” Cosby is described many times as “cutting back on his womanizing ways.” When he is accused, publicly, of fathering a child out of wedlock, his wife says: “All personal negative issues between Bill and me were resolved years ago. We are a united couple.”

In other words, Whitaker’s book manages to make sex and infidelity uninteresting, which is in its way quite an accomplishment—especially because in the wake of allegations that Cosby drugged and then raped more than two dozen women since the late 1960s, it’s fair to say that sex and infidelity are very big parts of Cosby’s Life and Times.

It’s impossible to know whether Whittaker’s humorless and respectful biography would hold any interest at all were it not for the reader’s own constant interpolation of the rape allegations, of which more seem to emerge every day. From the moment I started reading the book until a few days later when I reached the final page, at least two more women had announced to the press that Cosby had lured them to a private space—usually with the offer of career help or acting lessons—drugged them senseless, and then raped them.

The timing of Whittaker’s book reminds me very much of the timing of Eric Lax’s hagiography of Woody Allen, which was debuted in 1991; and to help promote the tome, a lengthy excerpt was featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine section, along with a photo of Woody and Mia on the cover. The combined effect seemed to confirm Woody and Mia’s status as the King and Queen of Manhattan glitterati. But note the excerpt’s lede:

“It’s no accomplishment to have or raise kids,” Woody Allen often used to say. “Any fool can do it.”

Shortly thereafter, the words Soon-Yi became just as big of a household name. Much more on Woody making the headlines (via Mariel Hemingway) after the page break.

I still peruse my well-thumbed hard copy edition of Lax’s book from time to time — it reads like the platonic ideal of what it must be like to be at the pinnacle of superstardom, with a license to kill from first United Artists and then Orion Pictures to produce a film a year, no questions asked. (A policy that arguably helped to tank both film companies.) Inadvertently, Lax’s profile of Woody is summed up by a line uttered by Mia Farrow in his 1985 film, The Purple Rose of Cario, after Jeff Daniels’ 1930s-era star magically walks off the screen in a New Jersey theater, and she tells her girlfriend, “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.”

And speaking of Woody, “Exclusive: Young Mariel Hemingway had to rebuff Woody Allen’s advances,” Howard Kurtz writes today at Fox News:

Long before anyone raised questions about his conduct with young women, Woody Allen had designs on an 18-year-old: Mariel Hemingway.

She had just starred as his teenage girlfriend in the 1979 movie “Manhattan” when the famed film director flew out to her parents’ home in Idaho. As Hemingway recalls in her forthcoming memoir “Out Came the Sun,” Allen repeatedly said he wanted to take her to Paris. And that made her very nervous.

“Our relationship was platonic, but I started to see that he had a kind of crush on me, though I dismissed it as the kind of thing that seemed to happen any time middle-aged men got around young women,” writes Hemingway, who was so inexperienced that she was embarrassed by the sex talk in the film. She warned her parents “that I didn’t know what the arrangement was going to be, that I wasn’t sure if I was even going to have my own room. Woody hadn’t said that. He hadn’t even hinted it. But I wanted them to put their foot down. They didn’t. They kept lightly encouraging me.” Allen was then in his mid-forties.

Hemingway woke up in the middle of the night “with the certain knowledge that I was an idiot. No one was going to get their own room. His plan, such as it was, involved being with me.” She shook him awake in the guest room and demanded:

“I’m not going to get my own room, am I?” As Allen fumbled for his glasses, Hemingway informed him: “I can’t go to Paris with you.”

He called for his private jet the next morning and left Idaho.

(Allen’s personal life, of course, has been mired in controversy. The director has strongly denied allegations by his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow that he sexually assaulted his adopted daughter, Dylan, when she was 7, and no charges were ever brought. Allen started dating Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow’s adopted daughter, when she was a young woman, and they are now married.)

Hemingway was starring in Manhattan in a role allegedly inspired by Allen’s relationship with actress Stacey Nelkin, then 17, whom he met while filming Annie Hall. As with the Nietzsche-esque Crimes and Misdemeanors of 1989, Manhattan was Allen’s apologia that he should be allowed to get away with anything.

But then, assuming the allegations against Cosby pan out, both he and Allen appear to be walking definitions of the French phrase droit du seigneur.

As Mel Brooks’ Louis XVI would say, it’s good to be the king. At least for a time.