LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Over and over again, Bill Cosby, the charmer, persuaded America to drop its guard.
Before Cosby and “I Spy,” no African-American man had landed the lead in a television drama series. Before Cosby and “The Cosby Show,” no affluent, educated black family existed on TV. Before Cosby, few black celebrities were hired to pitch something as mainstream as Jell-O.
It all made for an unmatched contribution to ethnic equality, a legacy seemingly invulnerable to claims spanning decades that “America’s Dad” was sexually abusing women. He denied it all and, year after year, that proved good enough.
Until it wasn’t. The collective willingness to trust in Cosby ended in a Pennsylvania courtroom Thursday. Jurors convicted the 80-year-old comedian of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand, whose 2004 experience with Cosby echoed that of so many of his accusers who emerged before last year’s #MeToo wave began.
His wildly successful stand-up concerts and albums, the smash hit TV shows, the immense comedic talent that gave him power to change pop culture — nothing is left unstained.
“It is just about impossible to see any of that except through the hindsight of his being a predator,” said Martin Kaplan, Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Cosby parlayed his authority as a father figure into the right to counsel — or as critics saw it, lecture — young people, especially African-Americans, on how to live, Kaplan said.
“He was Dr. Cosby, and a great authority on issues where you need moral standing,” the professor said.
“So now we all have to ask ourselves: What were we thinking? Why didn’t we see it?” Kaplan said, comparing Cosby’s fall from grace to the hit on poet T.S. Eliot’s reputation when his anti-Semitism came to light.
Cosby first won attention in the early 1960s as a clean-working comic who mined the experiences of children and parents for his material. He turned to acting in 1965 with “I Spy,” winning three straight Emmys and the title “the Jackie Robinson of television” for breaking one of TV’s major ethnic barriers.
Then came “The Cosby Show,” which aired on NBC from 1984 to 1992, in which he and Phylicia Rashad starred as firm but loving parents to an appealing brood of children. Mom and dad were high-achieving professionals, he in medicine, she in law.
“He was the biggest star in the U.S. in the ’80s, which made him the biggest TV star in the world,” longtime Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman said.
And as Cosby’s fame and wealth grew, he became a generous benefactor to schools and other institutions, adding to his lustre.
Now many of those institutions have cut ties with him, and much of what endeared Cosby to baby boomers and younger fans of classic TV has been wiped clean from the screen.
Syndication staple “Cosby Show” was dropped by TV Land as allegations against Cosby built, and Bounce TV reportedly was pulling the series after the verdict.
It’s far from the final act that Cosby had been working on. Just a few years ago, he was developing a new sitcom with NBC in which he was to play a grandfather dispensing advice. He also was looking forward to Netflix’s release of a new stand-up special and was preparing to launch an ambitious standup tour.
Although his appeal crossed generational and ethnic lines, his slams against the dress, behaviour and language of black youngsters provoked dismay from some African-Americans. It was that divide, not yet another woman’s accusation, that helped accelerate the unraveling.
Black comedian Hannibal Buress was onstage in 2014 when he criticized Cosby for his self-righteousness, declaring, “You rape women, Bill Cosby.”
Though Buress later said he was simply making a joke that went further than he expected, an audience member posted a video of the remark, prompting allegations from dozens of women telling similar stories to news outlets: Cosby gave them a pill or drink, they became intoxicated or incoherent and they were powerless to stop him from having sex with them.
NBC dropped its plan for the new comedy series, the Netflix special was pulled and concert dates began to dissolve. A new biography by the respected journalist Mark Whitaker foundered for largely overlooking the allegations of Cosby’s assaults.
Can any aspect of what Cosby created stand? Bragman, for one, said it’s impossible right now to separate the man’s work from his actions.
“This is his legacy in his lifetime,” he said.
Lynn Elber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.