Bill Cosby received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center last night. Among those on hand to salute the multitalented Cosby were comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sinbad and Dick Gregory. Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson paid tribute to Cosby in song. And representing his top-rated sitcom "The Cosby Show" were Phylicia Rashad and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
Beginning with Richard Pryor in 1998, the Kennedy Center has saluted "people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist." TV vet Carl Reiner – who received this prize in 1999 – is credited with introducing Bill Cosby to TV audiences in 1962.
Bill Cosby went on to win four consecutive Emmy Awards in the 1960s. The first three were as lead actor in a drama series for "I Spy" from 1966 to 1968, and the fourth came in 1969 for his self-titled special. Cosby was the first African American actor to contend at the Emmys for a regular role in a drama series.
In 1969 he returned to serial TV with the sitcom "The Bill Cosby Show." The following spring, Cosby and "Room 222" star Lloyd Haynes were the first African American actors nominated for a regular role in a comedy series. They lost to William Windom, star of "My World and Welcome to It," which also bested both their shows for best comedy series.
Bill Cosby never competed at the Emmy Awards again. After his triumphant return to television in 1984 with the smash hit "The Cosby Show," he would have been a shoo-in to become the first African American actor to win an Emmy for a leading role in a comedy series.
Instead, Robert Guillaume – who in 1979 had been the first African American actor to win the supporting comedy series Emmy for his work on "Soap" – won the lead award for his fifth nod as the same character in the spin-off "Benson."
Photo: Ron Frehm / Associated Press