Before the days of Jennifer Aniston's 'do and George Clooney's scrubs, Mr. Jell-O Pudding owned Thursdays, with a long-shot hit no one could have predicted would succeed so well and for so long.
In fact, when producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner persuaded a desperate, last-place NBC to give Bill Cosby a time slot back in 1984, he had not been seen regularly on TV for eight years, except as a high-profile pitchman for Coke, Jell-O, and Kodak. But Cosby's Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, an OB-GYN with a lawyer wife and a brood of five, would administer a miracle cure. The Cosby Show shot to the top of the Nielsens in 1985 and stayed there for five years. It rescued an entire network (the NBC shows that followed Cosby Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court climbed a total of 19 ratings spots) and resuscitated the sitcom: The number of comedies in the top 10 nearly doubled after Cosby began.
Before the demographically divvied, zillion-channel cable universe arrived, Cosby was the last show everyone watched. At its peak, 63 million viewers welcomed the funny travails of these hardworking parents who ruled the roost, stressed family and education, and just happened to be African-American. ''The Huxtables were set up to counter some of the minstrel shows Hollywood had set up,'' Cosby told Jane Pauley in 1992. There were no gimmicks, no gags, no ghetto, no loud George Jefferson types, no one screaming ''Dyn-O-Mite!''
Instead, for eight years the Huxtables served up a steady diet of family values, until Cosby admitted he had told all the stories he wanted to tell. So, with a one-hour finale on April 30, 1992, the door to the brownstone at 10 Stigwood Avenue in Brooklyn Heights closed for good and Cliff and Clair danced into the sunset. Every paper ran stories. The Today show ran a four-part Cosbyfest. Even in L.A., where post-Rodney King rioting had broken out, Mayor Tom Bradley urged citizens to ''observe the curfew and watch The Cosby Show.''
As the man with total creative control over this cultural phenomenon, Cosby succeeded in making the show he wanted and became staggeringly rich doing it. (The series snagged over $800 million in syndication.) But he couldn't parlay his prime-time popularity into a career on celluloid Leonard, Part 6, anyone? and his recent TV attempts (a remake of You Bet Your Life and The Cosby Mysteries) tanked. This fall on CBS he'll star in a Stateside take on the British sitcom One Foot in the Grave, about a crusty guy who has lost his job. Can he pull it off again? That's another Cosby mystery.