Spectacular fall of TV's favourite father figure... Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby's success, fame and popularity were once so great he seemed untouchable. Now more than 40 women have come forward to claim that the archetypal Mr Nice Guy is, in fact, a sexual predator who wrecked lives in pursuit of his own pleasure. We take a look at the man behind the myth, and the wife who has stood by him
Published 03/08/2015 | 02:30
At the height of his career, Bill Cosby was widely considered a true American success story. Asked about how he'd done it, he once said, "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone."
In hindsight, following the shocking allegations of recent months, which have destroyed Cosby's reputation beyond repair, it seems that his real fault was his determination to please himself at any cost.
Since last year, serious accusations about the comedian have been emerging in drip-feed fashion as one by one, 46 women have gone public with uncannily similar stories in which they recount being drugged and then sexually abused by the star.
It's 30 years since the first episode of The Cosby Show aired on NBC, launching a cultural phenomenon. And it's 10 years since Bill Cosby was first accused of sexual misconduct. In 2005, a young woman named Andrea Constand reported to Canadian authorities that she had been the victim of "inappropriate touching" while in the company of the comedian. In the civil case that ensued, 13 other women who reported similar experiences were named as witnesses. But the following year, the case was quietly settled out of court and the whole matter brushed under the carpet.
Things remained quiet until last year, when towards the end of the year the story exploded into prominence once again. First, one of the victims named in the 2005 case wrote a piece in the Washington Post reiterating her claims. By the end of the year, 16 more women had come forward, including the model Janice Dickinson, a household name. A few months later, 12 more had surfaced. Then, last month, Bill Cosby's deposition from the 2005 case was published, and with it his own damning testimony, in which he admitted he had obtained sedative drugs with the intention of giving them to women he wanted to have sex with, and that in at least one instance he carried this intention out. He firmly maintained that the sex was always consensual.
But there are now 46 women who disagree.
With a mountain of incriminating evidence looming, the case against Bill Cosby seemed to crystallise when New York magazine recently produced a cover story featuring photographs and testimony of 35 women who all claim to have been attacked by Cosby. The group was described as a "sorrowful sisterhood" who have united now to speak out after decades of silence.
As the accounts given by these women relate to offences alleged to have taken place many years ago, the statute of limitations on them has largely expired - with the result that it's unlikely Cosby will have to answer criminal charges in a court of law. But, now strengthened in resolve and number, the women are starting to pursue justice a different way. Last month, the California Supreme Court cleared the way for a civil case mounted by one of the women involved, Judith Huth, who claims that Cosby assaulted her at the Playboy mansion when she was 15, to proceed to the trial phase.
In the meantime, a monstrously unflattering alternative portrait to America's favourite father figure now looms large in the world's media.
The head of Coca-Cola public relations, a man who presumably knows a thing or two about public image, once said of Cosby that, "the three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite and Bill Cosby."
But amongst this triumvirate of middle American morality, one of the mighty has well and truly fallen.
Bill Cosby grew up in a tough, working- class North Philadelphia neighbourhood - far from the comfortable middle-class life later depicted on The Cosby Show. His father was a soldier who served in World War Two and returned an alcoholic. It was his mother, a maid by profession, and a strict disciplinarian, who was the backbone of the family and who took most of the responsibility for raising Bill and his two brothers Russell and Bob.
People who knew him in his early life remarked on the young Cosby's preternatural confidence. From an early age, he harboured an ambition to elevate himself above the circumstances of his upbringing. In 1989, during an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he spoke of his acute awareness, as a child, of the "want to get out." He talked of an early desire to escape the trap of "owing people. Of not being able to own anything. One of the biggest differences between lower-economic people and the middle class, who can shovel credit cards, is that the lower-economic people believe in buying something and paying for it. There's so much taken from you, your phone, your TV, it's embarrassing. You can't get credit. One of the biggest things is layaway. But with advertising you see the things you can't have. There's a time of disliking, because you know you will never have. You'll see people turn on what they can't have."
In Cosby's case however, he would eventually win all the material trappings he'd envied. At one point he earned so much that he even made a bid to buy NBC. Perhaps behind the cosy family-man image he projected to the world was a man whose desire to dominate was slipping out of control.
There were a few early false starts in his career. He has said he made some early mistakes, "quitting school and not paying attention to the people who told me to stick with it. Eventually he joined the navy "out of embarrassment," he later explained. "By 18 or 19, something should have happened to you, even in a lower economic neighbourhood. It's either working, college or the service. You do take great pride in not living off your parents. I got a job as a shoe repairman's apprentice. Which I enjoyed. For a while I shined shoes, which means this is what I'll be doing for the rest of my life. I decided to go to night school."
Initially, it wasn't Cosby's creative or comedic skills that finally lifted him out of the drudgery he'd grown up in - it was his athletic skills. He eventually won a sports scholarship to Temple University in his home city and, at long last, found himself on the right track. "I was reading, writing, challenging, exploring. I was secure in knowing I'd graduate and had my act together. I was playing football and running track," he later said.
It was at university that he started to explore stand-up comedy. His subject initially, was race relations, and his work won him attention, including a write up for one of his early performances in The New York Times. "Comic Turns Quips Into Tuition," ran the headline on his first review. Naming him as an emerging talent to watch, the article described "a young Negro comic who is working his way through college by hurling verbal spears at the relations between whites and Negroes."
From there, he won occasional slots on television, and eventually a sitcom all of his own - I Spy. It was the first time a drama series had a black actor playing the main character. But it was the launch of The Cosby Show in 1985, which Bill created and starred in, which was to place him front and centre of American cultural life. For five series, it was the most watched show in the country - a prime-time touchstone which united the nation. As his alter ego Cliff Huxtable, he was the archetypal, all-American pater familias - a firmly middle-class obstetrician and family man, whose gently humorous travails concerned mostly dealing with the lively characters of his children and keeping on the right side of his beautiful wife.
Through The Cosby Show, he became more than an entertainer - he was a symbol. Though the show was criticised by at least one cultural critic for being essentially "a white situation comedy in black-face", Cosby had achieved the undeniable coup of winning greater prominence in public life than almost all of his contemporaries, black or white.
On paper, the character seemed in certain important ways to match Cosby's own real-life trajectory. By the time the show launched, he too had the beautiful wife, (he married Camille in 1964 when she was just 19 and he was 25) and he too had five gorgeous children. By now he also had the same comfortable, affluent existence, though the family lived in Los Angeles, unlike the Huxtables who lived in a brownstone in Brooklyn.
These parallels were deliberate. Family life was often the source of Cosby's stand-up comedy routines, so it made sense that he would mine the same territory for his sitcom.
Except in real life things are rarely so simple. The first sign that the Cosby family were not quite like the Huxtables emerged in the late 1980s when his daughter Erinn went into rehab for drug use.
Erinn started using alcohol and marijuana when she was in boarding school, and later confessed to her parents that she'd developed a cocaine habit. She was the first to speak about it publicly, giving an interview to the National Enquirer following her release from rehab in which she expressed her contrition for her behaviour.
"Looking back," she says in the article, "I can't believe how Dad managed to go on with his show every week, portraying America's favourite father while having a daughter like me causing so much pain."
Cosby's response in a later interview, was uncompromising. "We have four other children," he said soon after. "This particular daughter appears to be the only one who is really very selfish. It isn't that we hang our heads or that we're embarrassed by this, because we've been living with this person who knows that her problem isn't cocaine or alcohol. I think that she's a child who has refused to take responsibility for supporting herself."
Cosby's ambition for his children was clear. As was his unalloyed disappointment. "One of the things I said to her is that every child in this house can become whatever he or she wants to become, if they do it through college or university. Get your undergraduate degree and hopefully go on to graduate school. When you're through at 27, you're ready for whatever the world has to offer, and you can go into anything you want, psychology, anthropology, engineering, or being an artist," he said. Erinn however, broke the cardinal Cosby family rule - to complete third-level education. She dropped out of Spelmann college, and this was a source of friction.
"She's 23 now," her father went on, "She's never held down a job, never kept an apartment for more than six months. She never finishes anything. She uses her boyfriends. She wants the finer things but she can't stand anybody else's dirt, which is important. Developmentally, she's still around 11 years old. The problem isn't alcohol or drugs - at the rehab center her urine showed up negative. It's behavioral. She's very stubborn. It's painful, not to me and Camille, but to her. It's going to take her hitting rock bottom, where she's totally exhausted and at that point where she can't fight anymore."
According to Bill, he had made the decision to freeze her out of the family. "She can't come here," he said. "She's not a person you can trust. You think you're not a good parent because you don't answer the call. But you can't let the kid use you," he said.
From the cosy, cuddly, cardigan-wearing man the public knew, these seemed like harsh words, to say the least.
Indeed, Erinn remained the black sheep of the family for some time and relations with her family were strained for about a decade.
It took tragic circumstances for them to finally be reconciled. In 1997, Cosby's son Ennis took his mother's Mercedes convertible out for a drive to meet a friend. Stopping to repair a tyre, he was attacked and murdered by an 18-year-old Ukrainian who had intended to rob him.
It was the start of an annus horribilis for the Cosby family. Speaking, many years later to Oprah Winfrey, Camille Cosby said of her son's murder, "It was horror, and I couldn't understand why this had happened. I had always taken great pride in protecting my children. I spoke to Ennis the night before he was killed and asked him to be careful about driving on the freeway in Los Angeles. So it was almost intuitive for me that something was about to happen. So then I felt bad that I didn't stop him in some way, but I couldn't. I was here; he was out there."
But there was more heartbreak for Camille to come that year.
A few months later, Cosby confessed in court that he'd been making secret payments to a woman named Shawn Upshaw, with whom he admitted he'd had a sexual affair in the 1970s. Upshaw's daughter, Autumn Jackson, had been trying for some time to extort more than $40m dollars from Cosby, blackmailing him with claims that she was his illegitimate daughter. During her trial for extortion, Cosby, who was called upon to testify, confessed to the affair, admitting that in the intervening years he had paid Jackson's mother an estimated $100,000, because he was afraid that "she would go public with the fact that I had sex with her."
This was the first time a crack appeared in Cosby's idealised, "family man" reputation. But, despite having blotted his copybook, Cosby was vindicated. Jackson refused to take a paternity test to substantiate her claims, and she was eventually convicted and sent to jail.
Camille Cosby has long been her husband's most loyal supporter. Just five years ago, she explained how she and her husband had managed when the news broke of her husband's affair with Shawn Upshaw. "You go through a transition," she told Oprah Winfrey. "If you are committed to each other. You cleanse yourself of all of that baggage, and you look at each other and determine whether the relationship is worth salvaging, whether you really love each other and want to be together," she said.
It's a mature, and compassionate response. But now, the landscape has changed. The details of Bill Cosby's elaborate attempts to conceal his repeated infidelities from his wife are out in the open. Following the publication of his 2005 deposition, she knows that he paid off the women he had sex with via his agent so that the transactions were not traceable by "Mrs Cosby". And now, her husband stands accused not just of a one-time sexual misdemeanour, but of multiple sexual assaults. Perhaps Mrs Cosby will soon find herself feeling altogether less forgiving.
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