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My Ill-Fated Trip to Bill Cosby’s House

We were gathered to discuss the writing of a four-hour script about the life, career and sacrifices of Winnie Mandela. All I wanted to do was go to bed

So many of my tales seem to mention me feeling sick, headachy and miserable. 

It probably had to do with childhood food transgressions; ironic, for such a healthy young man growing up in a home where no one took as much as an asprin. (Today I begin each day with heart medication and eight other pills.)

But on this week in New York I had chills, fever and probably a flu of some sort. And I had a 10 a.m. meeting at Bill Cosby's townhouse on East 61st and 2nd Avenue. No disappointment — this is a magnificent, four story home not unlike his fictional Brooklyn TV townhouse, only in a better neighborhood.  

As I believed there had to be a staff, I was surprised when Camille Cosby (left) greeted me at the door. Our writer, Emily Mann, was already seated on a sofa in the living room. I joined her, although I would have preferred getting into the bed of the Parker Meridian or in its bathroom at least.  

We were gathered to discuss the writing of a four-hour script about the life, career and sacrifices of Winnie Mandela, the wife of the still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. 

I had sold NBC on doing this mini, and tried to bring on board one of my favorite writer-directors, Richard Brooks, as well as all the great living writers of the time, including Arthur Miller, Fay Kanin and William Goldman, who all passed. 

But after working with Emily Mann (below right) on a traditional CBS movie, I suggested her to Camille and she was approved subject to a meeeting.  This was the meeting.

"Would you like some hot cocoa?" Camille asked.

I said sure, wondering if this cocoa would put me over the edge. Couldn't I just lie down on the sofa? Maybe I can ask Emily if she can sit in the chair and I can lie down. Holy G-d, I'm dizzy, disoriented and worried about becoming violently sick. Is this what food poisoning feels like?

Of course, we're just going through the motions, I tell myself. It won't be long, and I can dash back to the hotel and collapse.

Camille picked up the phone. I guess that was their intercom. "Billy, bring down a cup of cocoa for Arthur." I assume "Billy" is one of their servants.

Wrong again, sick boy. Out of the elevator walks Cosby, the American comic genius, carrying the dizzy agent's hot cocoa.

I accepted it with thanks. He asked,"Where did you get that suit? Nice material, I know shiny silk is only fashionable with the mob, but you agents can get away with it. I like the texture and the color." 

I was a longtime fan of Cosby, I even remembered his first "Tonight Show" with Allan Sherman guest hosting. But I didn't have the energy to respond. I drank my cocoa, Emily discussed her passion from events documented during her three weeks in South Africa to visit with Winnie; she even got to meet Nelson in prison.

Then it was time to leave. I couldn't believe my luck. It was over. I didn't fully emabarass myself. I could now do that hotel dash. Camille and Bill opened the door, I thanked them for their courtesy and made some feeble comments about how exciting the mini would be while focusing on not falling down the townhouse's exterior steps. 

As I landed on the pavement, someone called out "Arthur. Arthur Axelman, what are you doing here?" 

It was Peter Guber, the producer-studio head walking on 61st Street. I always admired his glib facility to handle any situation and his positive energy. But I didn't need this. Oh, G-d, help me, I don't need another meeting at this moment. 

"I was with Camille Cosby and Emily Mann, for an NBC miniseries. I pointed to the townhouse. "That's Bill and Camille's place. I'm going back to the hotel. I'm a bit out of it.  I need to crash." 

It was like I had ignited Guber's current passion. "You know you're right, we don't give ourselves enough personal space. There was a New Yorker cartoon I liked. The guy at the desk on the phone says 'Send in the clowns.' I looked at my appointment book and it was meeting one clown after another every 20 minutes, and then my dear friend Neil Bogart's funeral also was allowed 20 minutes, can you imagine?, followed by 10 nonstop assorted clown meetings …. it's abusive, humanly abusive.  You have to take care of yourself. Let's walk and talk." 

Luckily, Peter did most of the talking, until we reached my hotel. I wished him well and threw myself in search of the elevator. I was never so glad to see a room of my own at any point in my life.

By the time Emily had completed her four-hour, Winnie Mandela had been implicated in serial brutality and murder. Six months after being released from 27 years of hard labor,  Nelson Mandela divorced Winnie and NBC dropped the mini.

Emily Mann created "Execution of Justice," and it went on to win a Tony on Broadway with an enormously successful play "Having Our Say" produced by Camille Cosby. She is a much in demand writer and director in theatre and film.

 

A former senior vice president at William Morris for two decades, Axelman founded the movie for television packaging division, responsible for putting together the elements for more than 150 TV movies, features and series while representing winners of the Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize.

Since 2004, he has taught Entertainment Business and Law at UCLA.

He currently has written two half-hour pilots and co-created three reality shows with Diane Raymond.

He is at work on an agency-inspired tell-all novel.