© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bill Cosby Removed From Documentary On Black Stuntmen


There are a lot of people in the entertainment industry struggling with how to think about Bill Cosby's contributions to the business. For black stuntmen and women, he had been a hero - someone who championed them over white performers. But now Cosby has been cut from a documentary about black stuntmen. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team has the story.




BATES: How are you?

BROWN: All right. And you?

BATES: Retired stuntman Alex Brown welcomes me into his pastel stucco home. On a bright LA day, it is cool and quiet here. The ceiling fan hums in the kitchen as Brown proudly shows off articles about the Black Stuntman's Association.

BROWN: I was just in the process of...

BATES: Oh, look.

BROWN: ...Of showing...

BATES: Yeah. Stuntman broke the color barrier.

Bill Cosby once had a place of honor on the BSA's website because as the biggest black television star in the mid-60s, Cosby used his clout to stop the practice of painting down. That's painting white stuntman brown so they could double for him on his hit show "I Spy."


BATES: That insistence opened the door for black stuntmen who had been waiting to do the job, but who had been frozen out of the all-white stunt association. Brown says it's because of Cosby that the Black Stuntmen's Association, which includes black women, flourished for so long.

BROWN: Every job that Bill was on, he would go to the studio and say, look, I need black stunt people over there.

BATES: So when allegations that Cosby had been a serial sexual predator surfaced, the BSA members didn't want to rush to judgment. But when a judge unsealed Cosby's sworn deposition about procuring drugs so he could use them to have sex with various women, Brown said his members made a hard decision.

BROWN: Once you admit the fact that you've already did what you did, it's kind of hard to stand behind you now.

BATES: Film producer Nonie L. Robinson came to the same painful conclusion. She's making "Painted Down," a documentary on the history of the practice. It features actors like Louis Gossett Junior.

LOUIS GOSSETT JR: They couldn't conceive of any black man being as good a stuntman as they were.

BATES: Nonie Robinson's grandfather, Ernie Robinson, was a pioneer black stuntman and an original BSA member. Her film had originally included interviews with Cosby on his role in trying to stop paint downs. But since the news, she's removed Cosby from her film which is too bad, she says, because painting down hasn't gone away as much it's gone underground.

NONIE ROBINSON: It's Hollywood's little dirty secret. It's still happening today, even in 2015.

BATES: Last year Warner Bros. sat down with BSA members after a white stunt woman outed the producers of "Gotham" for painting her down for a test shot. That was a brave thing to do, says Jadie David, a member of the BSA who doubled for actresses like Pam Grier during the heyday of blaxplotation films in the 70s. David says having an advocate of Cosby's stature was critical because others were afraid to speak out then and, frankly, now.

JADIE DAVID: Everybody's worried about working. And in our industry, if you say the wrong thing, you could not work.

BATES: So says David, the revelations about Cosby, who had been so outspoken about supporting racial and gender equality on set, really hurt.

DAVID: For somebody to do so much, you know, in terms of good stuff and then to maybe cause so much pain. That's a little bit hard to deal with.

BATES: BSA president Willie Harris says the group removed Cosby's prominent place on its website, but it will never remove Cosby's contributions from the organization's official history. They owe him too much.

WILLIE HARRIS: We ain't throwing him under the bus. If it wasn't for him, it wouldn't be us.

BATES: But now, says Harris, the BSA must distance itself from its former patron and champion.

HARRIS: We didn't want to do it, but, you know, we held out as long as we could.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.