Other famous people have been accused, and even convicted, of terrible crimes. Each time, such events serve as a reminder that skill in some high-profile endeavor — entertainment, sports, politics — doesn’t prevent bad behavior, and in some ways, thanks to the power and privilege associated with those fields, can rather serve to magnify it.
Still, Cosby erected an entire career — and became one of the wealthiest performers ever — on the strength of his projected wholesomeness. Small wonder that corporate America loved him, turning him into a product pitchman supreme.
As a stand-up comedian who easily bridged color lines in the turbulent 1960s, Cosby worked clean when others went blue, talking about his childhood and family. Moving to TV, he starred in a popular primetime drama, “I Spy,” but left a more enduring legacy with an animated Saturday-morning program, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” which adapted his exaggerated childhood memories.
In the 1980s, his sitcom “The Cosby Show” became such a massive hit as to almost single-handedly lead a network-wide turnaround for NBC, while shifting the focus from Cosby, the kid, to Cosby, the parent, in a series that loosely mirrored the contours of his own family.
The widespread embrace of Cosby’s sitcom was seen as a healing balm on America’s racial history. Yet when the program aired its final episode in 1992, Cosby had to record a message for NBC’s Los Angeles station because of the urban unrest there in the wake of the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial — a stark reminder that there was still more to be done. “Let us pray for a better tomorrow, which starts today,” Cosby told viewers.
Cosby was wooed back to primetime a few years later by CBS, and beyond a new sitcom, again leveraged his special relationship with children in a revival of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” As recently as 2013, Cosby headlined a Comedy Central stand-up special, “Bill Cosby: Far From Finished,” and continued to tour and perform.
Ironically, it was Cosby’s status as a moral arbiter — as someone who felt empowered to lecture the African-American community about the need for personal responsibility — that helped hasten his downfall, after comic Hannibal Buress called him a “rapist” in a routine that went viral.
Because his routines were so personal, and his recollections so vivid, it was easy for fans to feel like they knew Bill Cosby — a sensation that tends to apply to many public figures, but perhaps more so to someone whose life and experiences were such a fundamental part of his act.
But it turns out, we didn’t. And that might be Cosby’s last, if unintended, message.