`Cosby Mysteries' Crew Calibrates Story to Star
Behind the scenes with producer David Black and his staff at NBC
NEW YORK — Showcasing America's best-known comedian in a mystery-series format has been a balancing act for the producing and writing staff of ``The Cosby Mysteries.''
Producer David Black, who was responsible for such TV hits as ``Miami Vice'' and ``St. Elsewhere,'' must combine the non-violent mystery format, the comedy that people expect from Bill Cosby, and a family-oriented atmosphere in a single hour-long show.
In the NBC series, Mr. Cosby plays a former criminologist for the New York City Police Department who has won the lottery, making him financially independent. But the lure of mysteries keeps bringing him back.
Unlike the majority of weekly series, this program is actually shot where the story is set: in New York. ``I like the city, the presence of the city,'' Mr. Black says. ``You can't shoot in Pittsburgh or Toronto or Chicago or L.A. and make it look like New York, with its mix of people and cultures.'' Interior scenes are shot in a gigantic converted pier on Manhattan's Lower West Side, next to the Hudson River.
In offices just down the hall from a constantly running fax machine, the show's supervising producer, Eric Overmyer, handles script development, and staff writers Siobhan Byrne and Charles Kipps talk about where they see the story line going.
``We are looking for opportunities for Mr. Cosby to do what he does best,'' says Mr. Overmyer, a playwright whose previous television credits include ``St. Elsewhere'' and ``Molly Dodd.''
He observes that the first several episodes found the staff discovering ``what kind of environment we should have - how much mystery, how much drama. Nobody wants a clone of `Columbo' or `Murder, She Wrote.' It's finding the balance between solving the mystery and something that's a little more character-driven.''
Mr. Kipps focuses on the specific nature of the show's star as one of the most compelling elements in the final product. ``Bill Cosby himself is a generous, compassionate man, and the Guy Hanks character has that same kind of compassion.''
Kipps tells of one incident during an outdoor shoot when a homeless man approached Kipps and Cosby, and Kipps's first thought was to call the security people. But Cosby invited the man to sit down, and spoke with him. ``I thought that showed a generous spirit,'' Kipps says.
Ms. Byrne notes that the writing reflects Cosby's wish for the program ``to be family entertainment, something that the entire family can watch without the parents being embarrassed,'' she says. Both writers see the show evolving into more of a story about this character.
Byrne has found the series interesting because ``Mr. Cosby is like a jazz musician, the way he works on a script. He sort of plays with things, and you can see the wheels turning. Sometimes he'll come to do a scene, and just by reordering it, or taking something out or adding something, he'll make it more interesting.''
Three floors below in a sound stage the crew is readying the living-room set for an upcoming scene. Producer Black joins co-executive producer George Crosby Jr. near the fringes of activity, as two large mobile cameras are wheeled into position.
``We shoot every day,'' Mr. Crosby says, which is different from half-hour sitcoms that rehearse for three or four days and then tape the whole thing twice on the final day. The average episode of ``Cosby Mysteries'' takes nine days to film.
``The only difference between our kind of show and a feature [film],'' Crosby says with a laugh, ``is the amount of dollars you have in the budget. Here, you have to be very facile, very quick, and make it happen.'' The show is budgeted at approximately $1 million to $1.2 million per episode. Hollywood studios can sink $40 million to $80 million into a feature film.
William Link, one of the all-time masters of television mystery, noted for helping to create ``Murder, She Wrote`` and ``Columbo,'' along with Black, Crosby, and Cosby, rounds out the executive producing team.
For the next hour, the cast, including Cosby, James Naughton as his former partner, Rita Moreno as his housekeeper, and Lynn Whitfield as his girlfriend, repeat the same sequence of dialogue several times. This allows the camera to capture the action from different angles and points of view.
Back upstairs in his office, Crosby clarifies how the producing decisions are handled. ``It's spread out. We confer. David Black and Bill Link handle the writing decisions. I may see something in a script that needs a second look because it may cause some problems in terms of production, so we don't write ourselves into a corner.
``And Bill Cosby says what he wants, too,'' he adds with a smile.
Turning off a monitor that is replaying yesterday's footage, Black settles into his chair.
``What Cosby does brilliantly, because he is one of the great comedy geniuses, is that he has an instinct for finding the human element in a situation, one that everyone shares and recognizes. And that is what television does best. It tells traditional great stories filmed in a traditional way. And I think that's the future of television: lowering the budget, forgetting about the fancy production values, and going back to telling great stories.''