Today, we look at five great guest appearances by Bill Cobbs.
This is “Following a Star,” a new feature where I spotlight five great guest spots by an actor who frequently did/does guest spots on TV series in their careers. It doesn’t mean that they’ve NEVER been regulars on shows, but obviously I’m not looking to spotlight people who are best known for their regular TV roles (like no Jason Alexander or Florence Henderson, for instance).
Since this is Black History Month, I’ll specifically spotlight Black character actors this month.
Bill Cobbs had a full career in the U.S. Air Force as a radar technician (and a number of other jobs) before he decided to make it as an actor in his late 30s. He moved to New York, and slowly but surely began to make a name for himself in experimental theater and with the Negro Ensemble Company. He eventually graduated to film and TV roles throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but they were relatively small roles until late in the 1980s. As he became older, suddenly, the quality of his roles really improved during the 1990s. I would spotlight his excellent job on I’ll Fly Away, but he was basically a cast member in the second season (but man, was he good on that show) so I don’t think it counts. That led to a number of film roles and regular gigs on other shows, and a burst of excellent guest spots. He’s been doing great roles ever since.
ER (Mr. Bowman)
In ER Season 2’s “The Match Game,” Cobbs plays a man whose car is struck by a drunk driver. He and his grandson are both admitted, but while there, Dr. Benton (Eriq La Salle) discovers that the grandson has a tumor in his knee. The problem is that he actually visited the ER a few months earlier complaining about a sore knee and when Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney) did an X-ray on the kid, he missed the very small (at the time) tumor. Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) brings the hospital’s lawyers into things and they inform Ross that he has no duty to inform them that he messed up earlier, and so that’s what they do (with Ross, though, paying for the kid’s cancer treatments out of his own pocket since the Bowmans don’t have health insurance). Benton, though, can’t live with this arrangement, and so he tells Mr. Bowman the truth. Cobbs got an acting treat here, as he gets to go from shocked at the news, to a sort of quasi-state of gratefulness to righteous anger. All in one episode!
The Practice (Arthur Turner)
In The Practice Season 4’s “Till Death Do Us Part,” the same episode that won Beah Richards an Emmy (and that I also spotlighted for Juanita Jennings’ performance in the episode), Cobbs does an outstanding job as a man who marries a woman because she is starting to suffer from dementia, and is beginning to tell people that she killed her husband (which she did, but don’t worry, he was an abusive jerk who “had it comin'” as they say). However, while that is his direct motivation, he also truly DOES love her, and wants to take care of her rather than have her in a home. His pained exasperation throughout the episode is excellent, as well as the pure love that he exudes for this woman.
Six Feet Under (Mr. Jones)
In Six Feet Under Season 1’s “The Room,” Cobbs plays a man whose wife died at the start of the episode (every episode of the series starts with someone dying), and he is incredibly irritable throughout the episode (since it is an HBO show, he gets to curse, which is a fun sort of treat to hear him use profanity), and also more than overstays his welcome at their home. Of course, this is all because he can’t get used to being alone now, and in the end, he dies as well, by her side. It’s so tragically beautiful in a twisted way.
The West Wing (Alan Tatum)
In The West Wing Season 3’s “Enemies Foreign and Domestic,” a letter is delivered to the White House that was intended to have been mailed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt over 50 years earlier. Charlie (Dule Hill) takes it upon himself to investigate and finds that the nine-year-old boy who mailed the letter is still alive, and so Alan Tatum gets to meet the President all these years later. Cobbs is so moving in his scenes, especially whne he makes a point to ask for a picture with Charlie specifically. Awwwww…
Star Trek: Enterprise (Dr. Emory Erickson)
In Star Trek: Enterprise Season 4’s “Daedalus,” Cobbs plays Dr. Emory Erickson, the guy who invented the teleporter. Now, the weird thing is that not only is he SUPER famous for having done that, but he also happens to have been a longtime friend of Archer’s father, and when Archer’s dad died, he sort of became a surrogate father to Archer. The show makes a point to hang a lampshade on the fact that two of the most famous guys of the century just happened to be surrogate father/son, but the main thing is that Erickson is in a particularly strong position to convince Archer to go on a dangerous mission to possibly save Erickson’s son, who has been trapped in a teleportation beam of an experimental attempt by Erickson to come up with an even BETTER teleportation system. In the end, he DOES succeed in bringing his son back (only for him to die soon after), but at great cost to the Enterprise crew. Cobbs is stellar in the episode, just sort of hypnotic in his control of the audience.
If you folks have any other actors you’d like to suggest for this feature, drop me a line at email@example.com! I have my 28 for this month, but feel free to suggest people for the future, including other great Black character actors.