The Cosby saga: It's hard to see the master as a monster

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Better days: Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable with "The Cosby Show" co-star Phylicia Rashād, who played his wife Clair.

It had already been a brutal fall for Bill Cosby when the decisive blow came down last week: NBC announced it would not be going forward with its sitcom planned for next fall starring Cosby as the father of three adult daughters.

The tide of public opinion was abruptly turning, as old accusations that the entertainer had sexually abused young women gained fresh traction.

First, an appearance on The Late Show was canceled. (David Letterman replaced 77-year-old Cosby with 83-year-old Regis Philbin.) Then Netflix pulled a Cosby performance special from its Black Friday schedule.

And the shuns kept coming. TV Land yanked all episodes of The Cosby Show from its rerun rialto, including the ones designated for a Thanksgiving marathon.

But the ultimate rejection was NBC's - jettisoning the man who had miraculously revived the moribund network in the '80s with his massively influential sitcom. NBC dumping Cosby was like Microsoft informing Bill Gates he wouldn't be welcome at the next shareholders' meeting.

The entire scandal-wracked sea change was precipitated by an event that would have been unimaginable back in the day when Cosby as Cliff Huxtable was enshrined as America's Dad.

In October, in a small theater on Arch Street, comedian Hannibal Buress interrupted his show to go on a tirade during which he repeatedly called Cosby a rapist. Not long ago, that incident would probably not have resulted in more than a puzzled parenthetical in a local review.

But that was before social media imbued us with a collective consciousness.

Someone captured Buress' bitter recriminations on a smartphone, and the amateur video began to draw attention online. A lot of attention.

 The accusations against Cosby have been well known since Andrea Constand brought a civil lawsuit against the comedian, a claim settled out of court in 2006.

Constand, who was working for the women's basketball program at Temple University, Cosby's alma mater, alleged that in 2004 at his mansion in Cheltenham, Cosby had given her a pill that incapacitated her and then sexually assaulted her.

Bruce Castor, then Montgomery County district attorney, declined to prosecute, though he now says he was convinced of Cosby's guilt. For the civil suit, Constand's lawyers had testimony from 13 other women detailing similar alleged attacks by Cosby.

But the entertainer seemed to have weathered the scandal and its backlash, primarily by keeping a low profile. In recent years, he has limited himself to comedy tours and a modest Web series, Obkb, based on his Kids Say the Darndest Things template.

Just a few months ago, respected journalist Mark Whitaker published an exhaustive 532-page biography, Cosby: His Life and Times, without referring even obliquely to the heinous accusations brought against the star. The scandal had apparently been excised from Cosby's legacy.

Until, that is, some nasty tangential remarks by a fellow black comic somehow blew up, gaining steady momentum until they had torn giant career- and reputation-killing patches out of Cosby's hide. Since Buress went viral, seven women have come forward publicly to say they were sexually assaulted. One of them, former America's Top Model judge Janice Dickinson, has given the proceedings the air of a reality show gone terribly awry.

Situations like this are torturous for fans. What do you do when a celebrity to whom you feel some attachment is accused of doing terrible things? Can this person you like and admire so much really be capable of such cruel transgressions? You have to decide in these situations whom you're going to believe.

As a rule of thumb, I try to put my trust in the victims. People, I have found, don't draw attention to their personal suffering unless it is genuine. This presumption is not always borne out, but I've found it to be true far more often than not.

But I've been discovering it's far more difficult for me to reverse my opinion about performers who make me laugh than it is about most other celebrity denominations.

I was always a fan of Michael Jackson's music - until the testimony of child abuse against him became consistently detailed. Then I dropped him cold.

Yet when similar claims were made against Woody Allen, I found it really difficult to accept. I haven't liked a film he's made in the last 25 years, but there's still enormous residual affection for the guy who created Sleeper and Bananas. I felt terribly torn for months.

It's even worse with Cosby. For people like me who spend a good portion of their lives vicariously through television, Cosby is a beloved father figure, much as I assume Spencer Tracy and Robert Young were for previous generations.

Plus the Cos has always had that special rapport with kids. He must be a good man, right? It actually hurts to think of him as a fraud.

So I'm enormously grateful to Cosby's legal and management teams for making the transition so much easier. Their consistently crass mishandling of the situation has provided people with an E-ZPass out of the Cosby camp.

At the start of the week, Cosby lawyer John P. Schmitt posted this statement on the comedian's website:

"Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives."

Until the next day, when the same advocate issued a clarification, emphasizing that he was not, of course, referring to Andrea Constand when he termed the allegations "discredited."

The self-righteous vow of silence was broken again a day later when another Cosby lawyer, Marty Singer, dismissed Dickinson's statements as "a defamatory fabrication."

Finally, this curious statement was issued from the bunker on Wednesday: "Mr. Cosby is a well-respected member of the entertainment community and one of America's most beloved performers. While we are aware of the allegations reported in the press, we are only in a position to judge him based on his career as an entertainer and humanitarian."

That's when you know Cosby's career is over, folks: when the lawyers and the publicists are quietly tiptoeing out of the tent.