I HAVE NEVER met him, yet like many American dads who watched his television show, I feel I know him intimately. And so when I read the news yesterday that Bill Cosby had lost his only son, Ennis, 27, shot on a California highway, it hurt.
I got that same, kicked-in-the-stomach feeling, that sweeps over me when I read about the sudden, senseless deaths of other sons whose dads I know. Cosby's description of his son, "He was my hero," rings true to many fathers.
At one level, this personal response to the Cosby tragedy is an overreaction. I am confusing the real person with the televised image of Cliff Huxtable, the father Cosby depicted on his top-rated 1980s television situation comedy, "The Cosby Show."
Yet, on an emotional level, I feel connected. In my mind I have memories of him on television performing dad duties, of shared moments of fatherhood.
He is the dad who gave the neighborhood kids horsy rides on his knee, even the heavy kid. A few days later, he is the dad limping around the house with a bad case of "jumping horse knee."
He is the man, who when he cooks his favorite chili, ends up delivering more chaos than comfort to his wife and kids.
He is the dad who encourages his dyslexic son to work harder in school.
He is the wise urban dweller who tells his family members that the best way to find a parking space on a crowded city street is to circle around the block looking for somebody carrying car keys. "Circlers," he declares, will always find a a space before "sitters," folks who double-park and wait for a space to open up.
He is the basketball player who resorts to "old man" tricks, like grabbing his son's shirttail to triumph over his quick-moving kid.
He is the fledgling handyman whose efforts at home repair are noticed by his kids only when he asks one of them to help.
(In a 1987 appearance at Morgan State University, Cosby said he was once asked "If you could have anything on earth, what would you want free?" His answer was "maintenance.")
This easy linkage between family life on television and real family life says something about Cosby's talent. This is what skilled entertainers do, they strike a chord with their audience. But it also says something about the genuine nature of Cosby's material. In real life he is father of four daughters and one son.
Yesterday I found a 1986 newspaper story relating what Cosby told television beat writers who asked what his family thought of the obvious use he made of them in the TV series.
Cosby answered by telling this story. He told how his 9-year-old daughter came to him concerned because her 12-year-old sister was drifting away from her boyfriend, Robert.
"She tells me her sister is drifting into boys with muscles," Cosby vTC is quoted as saying. "I said, 'What do you think?' She said: 'I think she ought to stay with Robert because he's gentle and kind and a gentleman.'
"So I say, 'How about you, you dating anyone or seeing anyone?' She says she is seeing some boy. I say, 'What boy?' She says: 'Forget it. You'll put it on the show.' "
Unlike most book reviewers, I liked Cosby's 1986 book "Fatherhood." I found the criticism -- that he was stating, even repeating the obvious -- simply reinforced my view that he was a genuine father. That is what most kids think about their dads, that we spout the same old stuff, over and over again.
Today many of us will go about the mundane business of fatherhood. We will drive our kids to games, or try to get them to take out the trash, or attempt to give them advice, or indulge them.
And while Bill Cosby begins the heavy task of arranging the funeral of his son, we thank him for helping us appreciate ours.
Pub Date: 1/18/97