(NEW YORK) — Bill Cosby earned the nickname “America’s dad” for dishing out advice coupled with a dose of humor.
As Dr. Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, he played the patriarch of the family, delivering trademark quips like: “I brought you into this world. And I can take you out.”
The Cosby Show broke barriers at the time, it reflected a truth for many African American families who until that point hadn’t seen an educated, successful and well off African American family celebrated on television.
But if Cosby’s TV family was wealthy and secure, his own childhood was anything but. He was the oldest of four brothers and grew up in the projects on the tough streets of Philadelphia.
“There were times when there was only the checks … two checks a month,” Cosby told ABC News. “But there were programs for the kids within the housing project.”
Those programs were a lifeline for Cosby’s struggling mother, Anna, who cleaned houses to try and make ends meet while Cosby’s father was away in the Navy.
“If you needed a dentist … if you broke your arm playing, there was a service,” Cosby said. “There was something that took care of you and as a child it was sort of magic for me that things were taken care of.”
The magic of the community also drove Cosby to get involved with the 11th Street Health Service as a little boy. He visited patients, attended cooking classes and performed at a benefit — knowing first-hand the lifeline the organization gave him and his family.
“My mother never had money … but my brother was taken care of medically,” Cosby said. “So organizations with this kind of help is really important.”
Cosby’s struggles, coupled with that sense of community, have long been a thread in his comedy.
He portrayed a “modern family” almost three decades before it was a hit show with the same name.
“One of the most important things taught in most cultures is to give a part of one’s earnings, to give a part of one’s good luck,” Cosby said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio