, LOS ANGELES – A celebrity’s fall from grace is always ugly, but that of Bill Cosby — a once-beloved comedian who broke barriers by bringing a black TV family into white living rooms — is a true gut punch to America.
The very name Cosby evokes so, so much — a father figure for African-American families, 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 now, accusations from dozens of 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 caught up with Cosby.
On Wednesday, the 78-year-old Emmy winner appeared in court in Pennsylvania over an incident dating back to 2004 and was formally charged with a felony count of sexual assault.
Most of the other cases against Cosby were nixed by expired statutes of limitations, as the accusations go back decades.
But this one just slipped under the wire. If convicted, Cosby faces up to 10 years in prison. He denies any wrongdoing and his attorney said Thursday he would be exonerated.
It is all a stunning change of fortune for an avuncular icon of a man synonymous with squeaky clean American humor and social progress.
In the 1960s, he co-starred in the espionage thriller “I Spy” at a time when there were few major roles for black actors. He won three Emmys for the role.
From 1984 to 1992, he portrayed Cliff Huxtable, the gynecologist and affable, funny dad of an upper middle class black family with a lawyer wife.
“The Cosby Show,” so named thanks to the actor’s overwhelming star power, was a fabulous success.
“He was clearly one of the major figures in the second half of 20th century in American pop culture,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.
“‘The Cosby Show’ became one the most popular TV shows of the history of the medium and one of the greatest family-oriented series of all time.”
Cosby won many awards for his work in the show, which anchored NBC’s powerful Thursday night line-up. And he smashed barriers along the way.
Shanice Joseph — a student and writer who chronicles the life of her largely black Los Angeles neighborhood, Watts — says Cosby helped her see the possibility of a different future.
“Prior to ‘The Cosby Show’ it was unheard of to see African-American families who were affluent, middle-upper class,” Joseph told AFP.
“Growing up, my friends and I were used to broken families. So it was good and important to see exceptions to this rule that the norm for black families is to be lower class, broken families, et cetera.”
– ‘That dad none of us had’ –
Aya de Leon, a writer and lecturer in the African-American studies department at the University of California at Berkeley, said Cliff Huxtable, Cosby’s character on the show, was important but in some ways a fantasy.
He represented “that dad that none of us ever had,” De Leon said.
Huxtable lived in a world where there was seemingly no racism and he did not seem to have to work very hard, she added.
Despite his fame and millions, Cosby came from a humble upbringing.
Born in 1937 in Philadelphia, Cosby was raised by a mother who worked as a maid and a father who was a cook for the Navy. He had three brothers, and developed a reputation as the class clown.
Cosby served in the Navy himself as well, won an athletic scholarship to Temple University and eventually started doing stand-up comedy.
In addition to his television work, Cosby has written books, and appeared in a number of movies. He has won several Grammys for his recorded comedy performances.
Cosby was an member of the Temple board of trustees but resigned the post and was stripped of several honorary degrees over the past year as the sexual assault scandal steadily 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.
Cosby’s wife Camille has continued to stand by his side. They had five kids, one of whom, son Ennis, was shot dead in 1997 while changing a flat tire alongside a California roadway.
Cosby’s career looks to be in tatters now as performances he planned are cancelled, as was a new show he was preparing on NBC.