Once the epitome of African-American success, Bill Cosby has now become a pariah.
Last week, a 2005 deposition was unsealed revealing Cosby admitted under oath to obtaining Quaaludes to give to women with whom he planned to have sex. As a cascade of outcry and the rescinding of Cosby’s honors has unfolded, experts say his admission torpedoed what was left of the once-beloved comedian’s career and severely tarnished his legacy.
“Unfortunately, Cosby’s personal demons have caught up with him in a world that no longer allows men to live without any form of sexual accountability,” Boyce D. Watkins, a scholar in residence at Syracuse University, told TheWrap.
Long before the scandal, which now involves nearly 40 women accusing the comedian of drugging their drinks, raping, coercing or sexually assaulting them, Cosby was regarded as a hero in the black community.
A Philadelphia native, Cosby graduated from Temple University and launched a successful stand-up career in the 1960s. While other comedians peppered their jokes with salty language, Cosby kept his comedy clean.
His breakout role came on “I Spy,” which debuted in 1965 in the midst of the civil rights struggle. The series helped change the perception of African-Americans in mainstream media.
Cosby went on to create, produce and host the classic animated series “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” from 1972 to 1985 — an outgrowth of his research for the Ph.D. in education he earned in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
He cemented his reputation as a star with crossover appeal on 1984’s “The Cosby Show,” a No. 1 hit on NBC and a groundbreaking depiction of an affluent black family led by a physician father and a lawyer mother. The show was on network television until 1992, making Cosby a welcome member of American households on a weekly basis. He followed that success with “Cosby,” which aired from 1996 to 2000.
In addition to shattering stereotypes, “The Cosby Show” and its spinoff “A Different World,” which
“Cosby meant everything to black people,” explained Watkins, who specializes in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse. “He was the last bastion of decency in television and a man who seemed determined to build his community through the use of media. He could have easily forgotten about us during his rise to the top, but he did not.”
The TV legend didn’t just give back with jobs, he donated millions of dollars. In 1988, Cosby and his wife, Camille, donated $20 million to Spelman College, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta and they gave $3 million to the Morehouse School of Medicine.
The couple also established a screenwriting fellowship at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, to help aspiring writers break into Hollywood, and deepen comprehension of African-American culture.
“For the longest, he was really someone that we looked up to. He was on par with Sidney Poitier and others who we really, really respect,” V. Nenaji Jackson, professor of Africana Studies at California State University Los Angeles, told TheWrap about Cosby’s legacy of breaking down barriers.
But according to Jackson, Cosby’s standing in the black community began to shift in May 2004 when he took black parents to task during his now infamous “Pound Cake” speech (listen to the speech here).
As he stood on stage at an NAACP Awards ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, the comedian criticized single mothers, young black men who wear their pants low and black parents who give their children unusual names. He also urged those listening to stop blaming racism for their problems.
“Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals,” Cosby said. “These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake. Then we all run out and are outraged: ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
While some praised Cosby’s frank comments, others questioned his judgement.
“He started to lose credibility when he started to do that. The argument was that, ‘You grew up in Philadelphia. How dare you pretend that you don’t understand the plight of poor black Americans?'” Jackson said.
Cosby’s public image took several more hits in the months that followed.
In March 2005, Andrea Constand, director of operations for Temple University’s women’s basketball team, filed a civil complaint against the star alleging he had drugged and sexually assaulted her. In the now-unsealed deposition, Cosby admitted to giving Constand three half-pills of Benadryl. However, her lawyer fired back, “We do not agree that the drug that was given to our client was Benadryl.”
Constand’s complaint claimed that 13 women came forward at the time with similar allegations: “Cosby gave them a drug and then had sexual contact with them while they were unable to respond.” The following year, the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
But the strength of Cosby’s beloved place in American culture seemed to protect him for nearly another decade until new accusations arose. In October 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress called Cosby a “rapist” in a stand-up routine. A video of the bit went viral and as Buress made headlines, more women stepped forward.
As a result, many of Cosby’s live performances were canceled or postponed, NBC halted development of a comeback sitcom, Netflix indefinitely postponed a new comedy special, and TV Land pulled “Cosby Show” reruns from its lineup.
That changed as of last week. After the damning deposition was released, Scott posted a statement on Twitter, saying, “I stood by a man I respected and loved. I was wrong.”
Goldberg has continued to suggest that Cosby is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Admittedly, he has faced no criminal charges for any of the alleged sexual assaults, and his attorney, Martin Singer, has denied the accusations made against the comedian in the past.
Still, Deggans said the odds are stacked against a career revival for the once-revered comedian. “Unless he can sit down with someone somewhere and offer a plausible explanation for all the allegations, the settled lawsuit and the deposition disclosures, his legacy as an admired figure in comedy and race relations will be forever tarnished.”