Bill Cosby: Portrait of the Artist as a Silhouette With a Cigar

Bill Cosby, Beverly Hills, 1969
John Loengard—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Bill Cosby, Beverly Hills, 1969.

Comedian, actor, musician, socio-political commentator, activist and, of course, the driving spirit behind Fat Albert and other memorable characters, Bill Cosby has been a force in American culture for six decades. He has won Emmys, Grammys (nine, and counting), America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Mark Twain Prize. He earned a doctorate in education from UMass in 1976, and in the years since has been showered with enough honorary doctorates to fill a wheelbarrow.

Married for 50 years, he and his wife, Camille, have four children. (Their fifth, 27-year-old Ennis, was murdered by an 18-year-old Ukrainian immigrant in 1997.) Through the years, Cosby has famously challenged people—most notably, his fellow African Americans—with barbed critiques of everything from popular entertainment to contemporary parenting, and in the process has drawn praise and, to only a slightly lesser degree, ridicule from both within and from outside the black community.

All along the way, and well into his eighth decade, Cosby has never stopped doing what he does as well as anyone ever has: he gets on stage, and he makes people laugh.

The photograph above, made 45 years ago by John Loengard, remains one of the most striking and, at the same time, most immediately recognizable portraits of the Philadelphia native. Loengard himself once wrote of this photo:

I went to Bill Cosby’s house in Beverly Hills one Saturday morning to take his portrait. I found him grumpy and sleepy. I suggested we move out by a patio wall and asked his business manager to hold some papers to keep the sun off Cosby’s shoulders. In silhouette, with his lips parted you don’t know if the cigar is going in or out. The act of smoking gives the photograph some action, but that action was what director Alfred Hitckock called a “MacGuffin.” It was merely what the audience notices while the real plot goes unnoticed—the fact that Cosby’s wire-framed glasses are wonderfully bright and full of dimension in the 2-D silhouette is the secret of the picture.

July 12 is Bill Cosby’s birthday. Here’s wishing him a happy one, and many, many more.

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