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The rise and fall of Bill Cosby

DAMNING SILENCE: Bill Cosby has refused to comment on the allegations he faces

HIS INFECTIOUS laugh echoed through millions of homes across the world during the Eighties as loveable patriarch Heathcliff ‘Cliff’ Huxtable in the award-winning TV series, The Cosby Show.

But his silence, amid damning rape allegations, has been more deafening in recent weeks.

While Dr Huxtable was the father we all secretly wished was our own, actor and comedian Bill Cosby has become a man that America, and the wider world, has callously disowned.

Headlines have spoken of a ‘sexual predator’ who needs to ‘redeem’ himself by apologising to his ‘victims’, but there’s a small corner of society who cannot separate Cosby from his defining role as ‘America’s Dad’.

In a time when damaging stereotypes about the role of a black man were commonplace in American society, Dr Huxtable was an accomplished doctor and, off-duty, a loving husband and father of five children who audiences grew to love like their own family.

Cosby, for all intents and purposes, played a pivotal role in society and shaped the way cultures, outside our own, viewed black people.

Cliff Huxtable was fictional, but afforded many an escapism from their own harsh realities – and offered a welcome break from the traditional – and often perfectly depicted – white family that TV land had been pedalling for years.

It was a watershed moment for the black viewer.

Cosby, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 12, 1937, had a life far-removed from his on-screen alter ego. The son of a housemaid and a sailor in the US Navy, Cosby’s upbringing was nothing short of modest.

But, early on, his teachers noted his talent for comedy and as he progressed through his undergraduate studies, he continued to hone his craft. Even after joining the Navy, like his father, he would often joke with fellow enlistees.

When he began bartending to earn money at the Cellar, a club in Philadelphia, he became fully aware of his ability to make people laugh. He worked his customers and saw his tips increase, then ventured onto the stage performing stand-up routines at a number of clubs around America.

He received national exposure on NBC's The Tonight Show in the summer of 1963, which led to a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records, which, in 1964, released his debut LP Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right!, the first of a series of comedy albums.

Though many other notable gigs/appearances followed, it was in 1984 that he landed the role of the softly-spoken Heathcliff 'Cliff' Huxtable on one of the most celebrated series on television.

The Cosby Show went on to land over 20 awards during its TV reign and Cosby, himself, became America’s highest paid entertainer.

Up until earlier this month, the show, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, was streamed to homes around the globe to meet demand.

Then a flippant comment made by comedian Hannibal Buress during a set in Philadelphia in October, which later went viral, rocked the foundations of this legacy.

MONEY MATTERS

“I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!" Buress said, mimicking Cosby, who has spent much of his latter years as an activist, famously chastising the black community for being their own worst enemy regarding money matters and social status.

“Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches," Buress said.

Though sexual assault claims have dogged Cosby throughout his career and he has never been convicted, something about the stand-up’s comments reignited the damaging allegations.


THE WAY THEY WERE: Cosby with fellow cast members of 80s sitcom The Cosby Show

Women began slowly emerging from the shadows. Their stories – chilling in similarity – claimed the veteran comedian had drugged and raped them at the height of his fame 30 years ago after promises of helping them further their careers on screen.

Former actress Barbara Boweman wrote in an October 27 article for the Daily Mail: “I was drugged and raped by that man.

“He is a monster. He came at me like a monster. My hope is that others who have experienced sexual abuse will not be intimidated into silence by the famous, rich and powerful. If I can help one victim, then I've done my job.”

She added: “I thank Hannibal Burress for speaking out over and over again, despite the threats from the industry that it could ruin his career. He is standing up for me and the other women who are too afraid to speak out.”

Her candid account sparked an onslaught of other women coming forward with similar claims.

Former supermodel Janice Dickinson also claimed the veteran actor and comedian sexually assaulted her in 1982.

And his former co-stars Raven-Symoné, who played his granddaughter Olivia in The Cosby Show and Lisa Bonet, who played his daughter, Denise, were forced to deny claims the patriarch had indecently touched them.

“I was not taken advantage of by Mr Cosby when I was on The Cosby Show!" Raven-Symoné wrote on Twitter. “I was practically a baby on that show and this is truly a disgusting rumor that I want no part of! Everyone on that show treated me with nothing but kindness. Now keep me out of this!"

More recently Law & Order: SVU actress Michelle Hurd, who did stand-in work on The Cosby Show as a child, has come forward and accused the star of touching her inappropriately.

ALLEGATIONS

According to the actress, one of only two women of colour embroiled in these allegations, recalled “weird acting exercises [where] he would move his hands up and down my body.

“I dodged the ultimate bullet with him when he asked me to come to his house, take a shower so we could blow dry my hair and see what it looked like straightened,” Hurd, who is married, further claimed.

“At that point my own red flags went off and I told him, ‘No, I'll just come to work tomorrow with my hair straightened’.”

Her claims were quickly followed by model Jewel Allison who claimed the star “put my hand on his genitals”.
“He said he wanted to help models and actors who were well-educated, who could do something else,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is Bill Cosby’.”

To date, a total of 17 women have come forward, but even at the time of going to press, new ‘victims’ continue to speak out.

A former facilities manager at NBC, Frank Scotti, says he arranged meetings, cash payments, apartments and more with a string of models and other women on behalf of Cosby during The Cosby Show run on the network between 1984 and 1992. This is the first time NBC has been implicated in the ongoing controversy.

Scotti, now 90, said he came forward now because he “felt sorry for the women”.

Since renewed allegations of sexual assault and damaging omissions erupted, the resurgence of Cosby’s illustrious career began to crumble.


SUPPORT: Cosby with loyal wife Camille

Appearances on The Queen Latifah Show and The Late Show With David Letterman were cancelled. NBC has scrapped a Bill Cosby sitcom that was in development, TV Land has pulled The Cosby Show reruns off the air and Netflix indefinitely postponed rolling out Bill Cosby 77, an original stand-up special.

In addition, eight of at least 36 performances in a stand-up comedy tour of the US and Canada have been cancelled. Spokesmen for two of the venues cited the widening scandal as the reason for the cancellations; the rest gave no reason.

But for many in the community, there is a feeling of confliction.

Is it the case that a celebrated figure, much like that of disgraced UK presenter Jimmy Saville, PR guru Max Clifford and artist Rolf Harris, have managed to evade capture because of their celebrity status or is it much deeper than that in the case of Cosby?

Does it lie in the fact that we cannot separate Bill Cosby from his much-loved Huxtable character? Are we mourning a broken dream, hurting at the realisation that our ‘perfect’ father figure is in fact flawed? Or that a black man of his stature has fallen so far from grace and we had front row seats?

PROTECTIVE

Finally, are we so protective of our stars that we can’t entertain the thought of anyone outside our race tearing them down?

All these questions and more have been presented in the countless forums set up since the emergence of these claims.

Cosby supporters have tried everything to explain away the allegations. It was claimed that Cosby’s plans to buy out the NBC television network from its current owner, the General Electric Company, first reported in late October, sparked the resurgence of these career-destroying claims.

Norman Brokaw, the chief executive of the William Morris Agency and Cosby's personal agent for 30 years, confirmed his client had decided “to fully pursue a deal".

Could it be possible that white America wasn’t ready for him to excel any further?

But then there’s that old adage, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ or the one that goes ‘anything that’s done in dark must come to light’. Perhaps he is indeed the “monster” these women describe.

Or could it be that all these women are lying? Employed by NBC to bring down the Bill Cosby powerhouse?

“I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn't have to answer to innuendos," the actor, now a frail 77-year-old, told Florida Today backstage at his sold-out show in Florida recently.

“People should fact check. People shouldn't have to go through that and shouldn't answer to innuendos."

Silence, albeit dignified, could be and has been considered by many, as an admission of guilt. Even though his wife and constant companion Camille, whom he met and married while he was performing stand-up in Washington DC in the early 1960s, refuses to leave her man’s side, many of his long-serving fans have, much like NBC and the lucrative contracts, disappeared.

The claims, however, will take a little longer to vanish.

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