Norristown, United States | AFP | From US cultural icon blazing past racial barriers to convicted sex offender: Thursday’s guilty verdict will now likely see Bill Cosby, “America’s Dad” swap a life of wealth and privilege for prison.
It was a name that once evoked so much — treasured father figure, a seemingly model citizen with gentle, self-deprecating comedy and a playful voice that would go from deep to screeching for a laugh.
But that legacy was buried forever when a jury convicted him on three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and molesting a former basketball player at his Philadelphia mansion 14 years ago.
The first African American actor to grace primetime US television and the man who brought upper-middle-class black family bliss to television is now a frail convict who risks losing everything.
His cultural influence was once so great that chat show queen Oprah Winfrey credited the now 80-year-old Cosby with helping to pave the way for America’s first black president, Barack Obama.
In 2013, she said “The Cosby Show” — which ran from 1984-92 — “introduced America to a way of seeing black people and black culture that they had not seen before.”
Five years later, a yelling Cosby called the district attorney an “ass hole” in open court after his conviction in Pennsylvania — as far from his once squeaky clean public persona as you could imagine.
His name was already mud. When comedian Hannibal Buress took to the stage in 2014 to tell Cosby to stop moralizing to African Americans and accused him of being a “rapist,” the flood gates opened.
The star few really knew
Around 60 women, many of them formerly aspiring actresses and models, came forward publicly to brand him a calculating, serial predator who plied victims with sedatives and alcohol to bed them over four decades.
But only one case had not surpassed the statute of limitations: the alleged assault of Andrea Constand, for which the Emmy- and Grammy-winner may yet be convicted and face prison time.
Both a first and a second trial in Norristown, Pennsylvania revealed a dark underside to his signature role of benevolent father figure and affable obstetrician Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.”
“Everybody knows you, Mr Cosby,” said a police officer taking down his original deposition in the case.
“Not really,” came the elusive reply.
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. quickly emerged 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 pivotal moment when few black actors had starring roles. 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 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 the ultimate family-oriented series, turning Cosby into a major figure of US pop culture in the second half of the 20th century.
Abandoned by celebrities
He was showered with 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, turning him into an instant role model.
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 denounced him.
But apart from his expletive-laden outburst on Thursday, Cosby himself has been largely silent, head bowed, a shadow of the charismatic, ebullient figure synonymous with family humor and the American dream.
In a public relations offensive before his first trial, and now claiming to be legally blind, he suggested that racism played a role in his legal woes, insisting he still wanted to write and perform.
But at both trials, he declined to testify. For now at least, his wife of more than half a century, 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 and daughter Ensa died of renal disease in February.