Bill Cosby: from TV hero to fallen US cultural icon
A celebrity’s fall from grace is always ugly, but that of Bill Cosby — a once beloved comedian who broke through racial barriers to broadcast a successful black family into white living rooms — is a true gut punch to America.
The Cosby name alone once evoked so much — a treasured father figure, a seemingly model citizen and comic with a gentle, self-deprecating style and playful voice that would go from deep to screeching in search of a laugh.
But accusations from around 60 women, many of them formerly aspiring actresses and models, that he was a calculating, serial sexual predator who plied victims with sedatives and alcohol to bed them have left his career and reputation in tatters.
On Monday the 79-year-old, Emmy-winning actor and Grammy-winning stand-up comedian goes on trial in Pennsylvania for aggravated indecent assault, accused of drugging and then assaulting a woman at his home in 2004.
Dozens and dozens of accusers have alleged that the entertainer exploited his fame to feed them sedatives and alcohol, leaving them powerless to resist his advances.
But the trial in Norristown, just outside Philadelphia is the only criminal case to stick as the vast majority of alleged abuse happened too long ago to prosecute.
Cosby insists that relations were consensual but if convicted, he risks spending the rest of his life behind bars on a minimum 10-year sentence and a $25,000 fine.
The trial cements a stunning fall from grace for an avuncular icon synonymous with squeaky clean humor and social progress, who once embodied the American dream.
Today, Cosby cuts a forlorn figure, deserted by celebrity pals and left legally blind, he says, from glaucoma.
On a pre-trial public relations offensive, he suggested that racism may have played a role, in a radio interview at times rambling and confused.
– Self-made –
“There are so many tentacles. So many different — ‘nefarious’ is a great word,” he told Sirius XM radio, insisting he had “an awful lot to offer” in terms of writing and performing.
Born on July 12, 1937 in Philadelphia to a mother who was a maid and a father who was a Navy cook, William Henry Cosby Jr. developed a reputation as the class clown, and joined the Navy after 10th grade, finishing high school by correspondence.
He won an athletic scholarship to Temple University and started doing stand-up comedy. In his early 20s he appeared on variety programs, but got his first big break in 1965 when he co-starred in the espionage thriller “I Spy.”
It was a time when there were few major roles for black actors. He won three Emmys and went on to star in a string of successful movies in the 1970s.
Then from 1984 to 1992, he portrayed gynecologist Cliff Huxtable, the affable, funny dad of an upper middle class black family with a lawyer wife in “The Cosby Show” — so named thanks to the actor’s overwhelming star power.
The sitcom was a fabulous success, becoming one of the most popular TV shows in history and the ultimate family-oriented series, turning Cosby into a major figure of US pop culture in the second half of the 20th century.
He was heaped in awards for the show, which anchored NBC’s powerful Thursday night line-up and for the first time put an affluent African American family on prime time.
Along the way, he authored best-selling books, and was for decades a member of the Temple board of trustees until he resigned in 2014, stripped of honorary degrees as sexual assault scandals mushroomed.
Comedian friends like Whoopi Goldberg who once supported him have now denounced him. He is isolated, and has largely refused to discuss the allegations against him other than to deny them through his lawyers.
His wife of 53 years, Camille, has stood by his side. The couple have five children. Their son Ennis was shot dead in 1997 while changing a tire in California.