Sometimes it’s hard to remember how much we lost when we lost the idea of Bill Cosby, something that occurred long before the sexual-assault accusations against him reached a second jury in Norristown.
Thursday’s guilty verdict, in a trial that took place beyond the reach of TV cameras, completes an excruciating process that’s made a mockery of many people’s cherished memories of a man who turns out to have been a predator.
Before he became a defendant, and an awards-show punchline, Cosby wasn’t only Philadelphia’s favorite son, Temple University’s biggest cheerleader, or America’s Dad. (Although besides being The Cosby Show’s Cliff Huxtable, Cosby wrote the kind of books — including 1986’s Fatherhood — that once made perfect Father’s Day gifts for men like my own father, who might otherwise have had to settle for another year of ties and golf balls.)
For decades, Cosby embodied a particularly American dream.
An African American comedian who grew up in North Philadelphia’s Richard Allen Homes, he became rich and famous telling stories, first in comedy clubs and on hit albums and later on television, about life and family that were so universal that even people who had little or no day-to-day contact with black people might have felt that at least one of their best friends was black.
His ability to connect with all kinds of people in comedy helped pave the way for The Cosby Show. The 1984-92 series, based on Cosby’s stories of his life as a husband and father, topped the Nielsens for more than half its run and was credited not only with reviving NBC’s flagging fortunes but with resurrecting the sitcom genre.
Cosby didn’t seem to talk much about race for many years, but his relationship with it was probably never as simple as he made it look in his act, or on The Cosby Show, which starred Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable, an OB-GYN married to Clair (Phylicia Rashad), a lawyer with whom he was raising five lively children in a Brooklyn brownstone. The show was funny, it was warm, and it depicted Cliff as a man very much in love with his wife and smart enough to know what he had. That it also showed millions of people an upscale African American family may have been important sociologically, but those millions wouldn’t have come back every week if the Huxtables weren’t fun to watch.
A high school and Temple University dropout who came to consider education important enough to pursue, and receive, a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Cosby served as a Temple trustee from 1982 until his resignation in 2014. His answer to racism, beyond helping to boost the careers of black actors and writers, seems to have been to present himself, and his characters, as proof that America is a meritocracy.
When Cosby eventually did talk about race, in a pointed and controversial 2004 speech at an NAACP ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark integration ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, it was to criticize African Americans who had not overcome poverty.
In 1965, he broke ground in television as the first African American lead in a TV drama series, starring with Robert Culp in NBC’s I Spy; a few stations, all in the South, refused to air the show. Nationally, though, it was a success, and Cosby won three Emmys in a row for the role of undercover secret agent and Rhodes scholar Alexander Scott — the only acting Emmys he’s won, having later taken himself out of the running in that category for The Cosby Show, reportedly to give others a chance.
Without Cosby in I Spy, we might not have gotten Diahann Carroll’s Julia. We might even have missed Bernie Mac.
In 2002, Mac, who died in 2008, was starring in his own family sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show, and talked, as he often did, about one of his earliest influences, a Cosby TV appearance.
“I loooove making people happy. That’s what got me in this business. I saw my mother crying. And I asked my mother, ‘Now why you crying?’ ” Mac recalled for reporters during a Fox party that winter.
“And she told me, ‘Nothing.’ And as soon as she said that, Ed Sullivan said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Bill Cosby.’ I was about 4 or 5 years old. Bill Cosby came out and I never will forget it, he did a routine about snakes in the bathroom. And my mother started laughing and crying at the same time. And when I saw my mother … laugh, I started laughing. And I started wiping her face, and I told my mama, I said, ‘Mom, that’s what I’m going to be, I’m going to be a comedian so you’ll never have to cry again. ‘ ”
Cosby can trace some of his present troubles to the 2014 Philadelphia appearance of comedian Hannibal Buress, in which Buress referred to him as a “rapist,” reviving the stories that began in January 2005, when the Philadelphia Daily News reported on Andrea Constand’s complaint that Cosby had given her pills that made her dizzy and had then groped her.
The comedian’s public image had taken a smaller hit in 1997, when not long after the murder of his only son, Ennis, Cosby gave a lengthy interview to Dan Rather in which he acknowledged a past affair with the mother of a woman who’d claimed to be his daughter. (The woman’s daughter, Autumn Jackson, was convicted of attempting to extort money from Cosby, who disputed her paternity claim.)
Cosby, as a father of five in real life as well, tied himself to traditional family values in a way that’s made it harder to separate Cliff Huxtable and the man who’s admitted to acquiring a once-popular sedative to give to women with whom he wanted to have sex.
I still think it’s worth trying to keep them apart. Because Cliff, at least, knew better. And because as happy as I am, as a woman, to have lived to see a time when accusations like the ones against Cosby aren’t just shrugged off as show business-as-usual, I will probably always miss the idea of the man who had made me laugh for most of my life.