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TV'S NEW SEASON

The Doctor Is Out

Bill Cosby is returning to prime time--with the same actress playing his wife. But instead of the Huxtables, you'll get people who really are like your neighbors.

September 15, 1996|Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer. Times Staff Writer Brian Lowry contributed to this story

NEW YORK — Raindrops keep falling on Bill Cosby's head.

But that doesn't mean his eyes will soon be turning red. Crying's not for him.

Observers at first glance might want to shed a few tears for Cosby's new character, Hilton Lucas, however, for he is one fine mess because of a series of white lies.

Lucas' wife is mad at him, a former schoolmate has insulted him, he's been dropped off at night in a strange neighborhood 10 miles from home, and a portly man who thinks Lucas is a burglar is prodding a rifle into his back. And the rain is pouring down.

But it's tears of laughter that Cosby, his writers and the group of technicians filming Lucas' predicament on a massive sound stage inside the historic Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens are hoping to elicit from viewers who will see the chaos unfold on an upcoming episode of Cosby's new CBS series.

The comedian punches out varying ad-libs during different takes, while head writer Dennis Klein, producer Joanne Curley Kerner and others suggest how to tweak more laughs from the scene.

They even improvise a new ending that finds Cosby singing in the rain. "A thousand bottles of beer on the wall, a thousand bottles of beer," Lucas drones as he rounds the street corner to start on the long, wet journey home. Director John Whitesell yells "Cut!," the rain machines stop, and the crew applauds. Cosby soon reappears with his trademark cigar and a familiar twinkle in his eyes, looking very pleased.

Welcome to "Cosby Part 7," or rather "Cosby," the stand-up comedian-actor-author-pitchman-multimillionaire philanthropist-doctor of education-executive producer's seventh venture into a prime-time entertainment series since "I Spy" in 1965. The comedy, which premieres Monday at 8 p.m., is the crown jewel of CBS' new fall slate as the network attempts to break out of its two-year ratings slump.

And unlike "Leonard Part 6," the botched 1987 Cosby feature film that even he begged audiences to avoid, Cosby, 59, is in the comfort zone here. He has brought in veteran writers, such as Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turteltaub, who click with his sensibility. He has surrounded himself with former colleagues on the crew. He kids members of the adoring studio audience. He hugs co-star Madeline Kahn between takes. There is even time for brief backstage visits with his high school football and track coach.

But the distractions don't last long. Cosby, who broke down racial stereotypes, revitalized situation comedy and reversed the fortunes of a network in the 1980s with "The Cosby Show" on NBC, is consumed with making his new vehicle work. That includes frequent--and sometimes tense--discussions with his writing staff, restless nights and insulating himself as much as he can from the glare of hungry media.

Cosby said he has no time for the buzz and the barbs that have been flying since it was announced that he was returning to a network sitcom with an unusual two-season commitment from CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves. The deal reportedly has the network paying more than $1 million per episode.

Some industry insiders immediately started casting dark clouds over the prospects of the series, largely because its star is coming off two high-profile failures: "You Bet Your Life," the 1992 version of the famous 1950s game show with Groucho Marx, and 1994's "The Cosby Mysteries," an NBC drama that failed to intrigue viewers. Cosby was also executive producer of NBC's short-lived "Here and Now," a 1992 sitcom featuring Malcolm-Jamal Warner of "The Cosby Show."

The show's uncertain prospects were further clouded by news accounts earlier this year of Cosby riding herd over the production and firing writers left and right. Telma Hopkins, who was originally cast to play Cosby's wife, was canned and replaced by "Cosby Show" veteran Phylicia Rashad. Some critics then charged that, with the addition of Rashad, the new show was basically "The Cosby Show" without the kids.

The producers have already braced for the inevitable comparison by critics between the new "Cosby" and the phenomenon of "The Cosby Show."

Cosby, however, has other things on his mind.

"I am working now," Cosby said in a rare quiet moment before a taping.

"I'm deep in the trenches," he said. "You can see that all around here, working with people, saying, 'Let's try this, let's go here.' And it's been great."

Then he pointedly added: "I do not have time to try and get rid of some things around my feet about 'Why are you doing this?' or 'Why are you coming back?' or 'Why are you getting so much money' or people looking for a story."

He then answered the doubters with a smile: "Why am I doing this? Because it's there."

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