Bill Cosby: a dark cloud now hangs over ‘America’s Dad’ – The Guardian
Historical cases of sexual abuse by celebrities have disfigured the world of British entertainment for the past couple of years. But none of the characters involved – not even celebrated charity worker Jimmy Savile – has occupied the exalted position of trust enjoyed by the subject of a spate of rape allegations in the United States.
As the head of Coca-Cola’s public relations once put it: “The three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite and Bill Cosby.” That was in 1981 when the black comedian was one of America’s best-loved stars. It’s a different story today because America is suddenly finding it very hard to believe Cosby.
In September, with Cosby in the middle of a successful comeback tour, the journalist Mark Whitaker published Cosby: His Life and Times, a biography written with Cosby’s help that covered many areas of the comedian’s life, but left one untouched. In 2005, Andrea Constand, director of women’s basketball at Temple University, Cosby’s alma mater, claimed that the comedian had drugged and raped her the previous year in Philadelphia.
She went to the authorities, and although the district attorney said he thought that Cosby was probably guilty, there was not enough evidence to prosecute. Instead, Constand filed a civil suit in which 13 women allegedly offered to testify that they too had suffered sexual assaults at Cosby’s hands. The matter was settled out of court, and therefore no women testified, but thereafter a bad smell hung around Cosby’s previously pristine reputation.
Paradoxically, Whitaker’s glaring omission of all this got people talking again, but this time in an age of social media. And it was followed last month by comedian Hannibal Buress calling Cosby a rapist during a show in Cosby’s hometown of Philadelphia. A clip of the set went viral.
That prompted a former model called Barbara Bowman to give a detailed account to the Daily Mail of how, she alleged, Cosby mentored her and then, when she was 19, drugged and sexually assaulted her. She said that, unlike other victims, she had never taken “shut-up money” from the comedian and wanted to expose him as “the animal that he is”. She then wrote an opinion piece in the influential Washington Post, saying that it had taken a man’s accusation (Buress’s) for her finally to be taken seriously.
Subsequently, several other women, including veteran supermodel Janice Dickinson, have gone public with strikingly similar accounts of being drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby. The star himself has refused to comment in detail. In a filmed interview he gave with his wife to Associated Press, he appealed to the journalist’s “integrity” to “scuttle” the story. His representatives have consistently denied accusations against him, with his lawyers describing the claims as “preposterous and bizarre”. Cosby was never arrested or charged with any crime relating to the allegations. Statutes of limitation mean there is little danger of Cosby being charged or facing trial. However, he now finds the American entertainment business swiftly backing away from him. Netflix has suspended a special entitled Bill Cosby 77, NBC has ditched a planned new sitcom and TVLand has cancelled repeats of The Cosby Show.
How did the paragon become a pariah? Cosby grew up in the tough environs of North Philadelphia. His mother was a maid and his father a sailor who, after serving in the second world war, became an alcoholic. A high school drop-out, Cosby also joined the navy, before winning an athletics scholarship to Philadelphia’s Temple University. It was while still a student that he first came to public attention in the early 1960s. The New York Times favourably reviewed a “young Negro comic” who made fun of relations between blacks and whites.
Cosby was never a political comedian, but soon consciously set about becoming apolitical or, perhaps more significantly, colourless. He dropped the black/white quips and focused on becoming a comic storyteller, someone who could spin an observation or memory into an elaborate anecdote with his distinctively unpredictable speech pattern, filled with inspired details for universal appeal.
Such was his success as a standup that he quickly graduated through spots on The Tonight Show to landing his own TV series, I Spy, in which he co-starred with Robert Culp. It ran for three years in America and made Cosby a lot of money and a big name.
It was a radical period in black politics and Cosby kept a relatively low profile, but was determined to increase the power and remit of at least one black performer. He co-founded a record label that released a John Lennon and Yoko Ono album and helped finance Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, probably the most militant film produced by the blaxploitation genre.
All along, he maintained an approachable public persona: comfortable, reassuring and, critically for a white audience, unthreatening. He wasn’t like his friend Richard Pryor, who recorded the extremity of African American experience in profane, unvarnished terms. To some of his critics, Cosby represented black aspiration in a manner that was far more aspirational than black. By the early 1980s, the period from which many of the rape allegations date, Cosby was looking like a man from another age. A new generation, led by Eddie Murphy, had taken their lead from Pryor and projected a swaggering and confrontational image of African American manhood.
But with The Cosby Show, which began in 1984, Cosby played that generational shift to his own advantage. His character of “Cliff” Huxtable, an obstetrician, was not just a father on the show. Such was the show’s popularity, Huxtable also enabled Cosby to become an authority figure in American culture at large. For five seasons, the show was the most watched in America. If Cosby became a cultural force, he also became hugely powerful, so wealthy that he tried to buy the television network NBC. He was now a widely respected, beloved and almost untouchable celebrity. If he did abuse the women, it doesn’t require much imagination to see why they may have had difficulty in speaking out or being heard.
But why would so commanding a figure need to resort to drugging young and impressionable women? Only the culprit or his psychiatrist could answer that. But it has been noted that on his 1969 album It’s True! It’s True! Cosby did a skit about drugging women with “Spanish fly” so they would become sexually pliable.
It was about as risqué as Cosby got in his act. And years later, as his paternal brand became more established, he began to lecture on the loose morals he discerned in the younger generation of African Americans. He admonished Eddie Murphy for swearing and made appeals to the spirit of self-help that drove the civil rights movement.
But his increasing frustration with a youth that wasn’t listening led him in 2004 to make a speech in which he seemed to suggest that petty thieves only had themselves to blame if they ended up being shot by the police. He was appalled by what he saw as a lack of social responsibility and familial constraints. “You can’t keep asking that God will find a way,” he complained. “God is tired of you.”
Ironically, it was this kind of outburst that caused Buress, a younger comedian with a much more unbuttoned style, to enter the fray. He laid into Cosby, saying he had the “smuggest old black male public persona”. He spoke of the older man telling black people to pull their pants up and imitated him saying: “I don’t curse on stage.” “Yeah,” said Buress, “but you’re a rapist.”
If these allegations are true – and the best that Cosby has done to deny them is have his publicist say that they are “decades-old” and “discredited” – then obviously it is the victims of the assaults who most deserve sympathy and understanding.
But an awful lot of other people are part of the collateral damage. First of all Cosby’s wife, Camille, who has stood by him throughout all the years of rumours, private payments and law suits. They married in 1964 and had five children – their only son, Ennis, was murdered in 1997 while changing a flat tyre in Los Angeles. Then there are the rest of the family, friends and supporters who have remained loyal.
On a wider level, there is also the damage it does to America’s fragile racial cohesion. Even today, there are few black celebrities who have insinuated themselves into the heart of white America. Those who do, OJ Simpson and Tiger Woods, for example, often seem to undergo a spectacular fall from grace. It would be tragic for many reasons if the most loved black celebrity of them all now ends up being an embarrassing figure of hate.
THE COSBY FILE
Born William Henry Cosby 12 July 1937 in Philadelphia, one of four sons to William Henry Cosby Sr and Anna Pearl. He grew up in the city and at school became what he described as the “class clown”.
Best of times The Cosby Show became America’s top television series in the 1980s. A spin-off show – A Different World – was second in the audience ratings.
Worst of times The murder of his son, Ennis, in 1997 by a teenage Ukrainian immigrant during a botched robbery on a freeway in Los Angeles.
What he says “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone.”
What others say “Today will mark the end of Cosby’s career in comedy, telling people how they should live their lives, being ‘America’s Dad’ and, by some accounts, an American hero.” Victor Fiorillo, Philadelphia reporter.
Bill Cosby: a dark cloud now hangs over ‘America’s Dad’ – The Guardian