' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Bill Cobbs

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

In Memoriam: Bill Cobbs

Not knowing the backstory of actor Bill Cobbs, I was moved to learn it in various obituaries from The Associated Press to Vulture when he died on June 24th at the age of 90. He had no formal training as an actor, serving for eight years in the Air Force as a radar technician before returning to his hometown of Cleveland and selling cars. That is when a customer asked if he might be interested in acting in a play. I keep trying to picture this encounter. As ingratiating as he was intimidating, I imagine Cobbs made for the perfect car salesman, winning you over, unwilling to let you walk away. Did the customer ask if he wanted to act before or after being handed the keys to his or her new Pontiac Bonneville? He got his start on the Cleveland stage, including at the famed Karamu House under the direction of then-artistic director Reuben Silver, a guiding light of the city's theater scene and whose backstory I enjoyed learning about as much as Cobbs. Eventually, Cobbs would leave for New York, working odd jobs while gradually carving out a career as a true working actor, one that Variety noted included almost 200 movie and TV credits. If you came of age as I did in the 80s and 90s, you saw him over and over. He was not a That Guy; given his 6'1" height, his voice, his presence, once you knew Bill Cobbs, you never forgot him. When I tuned into The Michael Richards Show for at least one episode in the fall of 2000, well, it was dreadful, but I nevertheless thought, “Alright! Bill Cobbs is in this!” His presence was always a blessing.

Cobbs said in a 2004 interview quoted in most of the obits, and that you can listen to in full on YouTube, that he saw acting as a way to express the human condition in a moment when the Civil Rights movement was at its apex. As the years went by, Cobbs remained true to that vision. He was the conscience of Mario Van Peebles’s “New Jack City,” but the indignant conscience, willing to take matters into his own hands when the law proves inadequate to setting things right, infusing the conclusion with what the movie’s screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper deemed a “Biblical heft.” In my favorite John Sayles movie, “Sunshine State,” he was a living, breathing monument to a swath of Black history that had literally been wiped off the face of the earth. Of course, no one can choose nor predict their legacy. One of Cobbs’s myriad credits was in “Air Bud” as the coach of a basketball team starring a golden retriever. This half-remembered comedy was resurrected in recent years by social media, turning the moment in which the character played by Cobbs points out there is no rule saying a dog can’t play basketball into a go-to meme for our topsy-turvy present. When the hallowed Supreme Court dispenses its patented latter day witches brew of yo-yoing textualism horse hockey and sanctified cum sinuous legalese in order to say what the law is in so far as whatever they need the law to be in the name of their own shadowy motives at any given time, there comes the “Air Bud” meme again. 

I have been wondering what Cobbs would have made of “Air Bud,” of all things, resonating with social media-addled youth, but then, I’m not sure I have to wonder. In that same 2004 interview, he said that “Art is somewhat of a prayer, isn’t it?” He tied this into what he called “a sense of giving,” but I couldn’t help thinking of it as the way of the working actor, those with small roles on the peripheries of movies and one-shot appearances on so many television dramas and sitcoms. You show up, give your performance, say a prayer for it and whatever it might become and let it go, and move on to the next one. 

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