Who Is Bill Cosby?
Bill Cosby dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Navy, and later dropped out of college to become a stand-up comedian. Cosby's first acting assignment, in the espionage series I Spy (1965-68), made him the first Black actor to co-star in a leading dramatic role on network television, as well as the first to earn an Emmy Award. His most successful work, The Cosby Show, appeared on NBC from 1984 to 1992 and was the highest-rated sitcom for several consecutive years. Cosby’s legendary status was tarnished when numerous accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced in 2014. His trial for three counts of aggravated indecent assault ended with a deadlocked jury in June 2017, but he was found guilty after a retrial in April 2018.
Cosby was born William Henry Cosby Jr. on July 12, 1937, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cosby, the oldest of four boys, grew up in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood. At first, the Cosbys were able to get by, financially, but the family's money began to slip when Cosby's father, William Cosby Sr., began drinking heavily. After his father enlisted in the U.S. Navy, Cosby became like a parent to his brothers. Cosby's mother, Anna, worked cleaning houses. He and his family also ended up living in the Richard Allen Homes, a low-income housing project. At the age of 8, Cosby suffered a great loss when his brother James, the second oldest of the boys, died.
With money very tight for his family, Cosby started shining shoes and worked at a supermarket during his middle school years. Despite their hardships, Cosby's mother stressed the value of education and learning. She often read books to Bill and his brothers, including the Bible and works by Mark Twain. A gifted storyteller himself, Cosby learned early on that humor could be a way to make friends and get what he wanted. Cosby excelled at making things up. As one of his teachers once noted, "William should become either a lawyer or an actor because he lies so well.''
In school, Cosby was bright but unmotivated. He liked to tell stories and jokes to his classmates more than he liked to do his schoolwork. One of his teachers encouraged him to put his performing talents to use in school plays, not in her classroom. At home, Cosby listened to a variety of radio programs and started imitating such comedians as Jerry Lewis. He also watched such television performers as Sid Caesar and Jack Benny whenever he could.
While he was more interested in sports than academics — he was active on his school's track and football teams — Cosby was placed in a high school for gifted students after scoring high on an IQ test. But Cosby failed to apply himself and ended up failing tenth grade twice. He switched to Germantown High School, but the academic issues continued. In frustration, Cosby dropped out of high school. He worked several odd jobs before joining the U.S. Navy in 1956.
During his military service, Cosby worked as a medical aide on ships, in several hospitals and at other facilities. He also joined the Navy's track team, where he excelled, especially in the high jump event. Regretting his decision to drop out of school, Cosby earned his high school equivalency diploma while in the service. After leaving the Navy, he went to Temple University via scholarship.
While at Temple, Cosby landed a job as a bartender at a coffee house. He told jokes there, and eventually landed work filling in for the house comedian from time to time at a nearby club. Cosby also performed as a warm-up act for his cousin's radio show. He found inspiration in the works of such comedians as Dick Gregory, an African American comic who often talked about racial issues in his routines. Early in his career, Cosby discussed race in his act as well, but he eventually dropped it from his performances, choosing to focus on telling stories about more general and universal themes.
'I Spy' and 'Fat Albert'
Nearly halfway through his college career, Cosby decided to drop out to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. He started performing at a place in Greenwich Village, New York, and he toured extensively, winning over fans. In 1963, Cosby made his first appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, which helped introduce him to a national audience. (Cosby would go on to appear on the show dozens of times.) He also landed a recording contract and that same year released his first comedy album, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow ... Right! He won a Grammy Award (Best Comedy Performance) for his next effort, 1964's I Started Out as a Child. For the remainder of the 1960s, Cosby released hit album after hit album, winning another five Grammys. He would later pick up two more for his recordings for children as part of The Electric Company TV series.
In 1965, Cosby also helped pave the way for African American TV performers with a leading role in a TV series. Portraying Alexander Scott, he starred with Robert Culp in the espionage series I Spy. The two spies pretended to be a professional tennis player (Culp) traveling with his coach (Cosby). The show ran for three years, and Cosby received three consecutive Emmy Awards for his work.
Not long after I Spy ended, Cosby starred in his own sitcom. The Bill Cosby Show ran for two seasons, from 1969 to 1971, and featured the comedian as a gym teacher at a Los Angeles high school. A former aspiring teacher, Cosby went back to school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Around the same time, he appeared on the educational children's series The Electric Company, and developed the animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which he based on many of his childhood experiences. In 1977, Cosby received a doctorate in urban education from the university, having written his dissertation on Fat Albert. (Cosby had received the degree via nontraditional methods, with his screen work reportedly counting toward course credits.)
On the big screen, Cosby enjoyed box-office success with the 1974 comedy Uptown Saturday Night, co-starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, with Poitier directing. Continuing to attract big audiences, he appeared opposite Poitier in two more comedy hits, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, in 1975 and 1977, respectively.
'The Cosby Show'
Once again turning to his life for inspiration, Cosby began working on a new television series. The sitcom focused on an upper-middle-class African American couple with five children. Each of the children's characters shared some traits of their real-life counterparts. Married since 1964, Cosby and his real-life wife, Camille, had four daughters and one son. (Cosby originally wanted the show to be about a driver and his plumber wife, with Camille joining producers to push for the show to be about a doctor and attorney.) In 1984, The Cosby Show debuted to favorable reviews and strong ratings.
Week after week, The Cosby Show drew audiences with its warm humor and believable situations. Cosby's character, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, became one of the most popular dads in television history. He also served as a parental figure to his young co-stars, including Sabrina Le Beauf, Lisa Bonet, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempestt Bledsoe and Keshia Knight Pulliam, as well as Raven-Symoné and Erika Alexander, on set. Phylicia Rashad co-starred with Cosby as his wife, Clair. After being the highest-rated sitcom on TV for several years, the show finally ended its run in 1992.
Over the show's eight-season run, Cosby found time for other projects: He appeared in several films, including Leonard Part 6 (1987) and Ghost Dad (1990). In 1986, Cosby achieved another career milestone — becoming a bestselling author. His reflections on parenting were included in the book Fatherhood, which sold millions of copies. His opus on aging, Time Flies (1987), also enjoyed huge sales. In addition, Cosby enjoyed great popularity as a pitchman, appearing in commercials for such products as JELL-O, for which he had served as a spokesman since 1974.
After The Cosby Show, Cosby continued to work in television. He starred in The Cosby Mysteries, in which he played a retired criminologist who sometimes helped out a detective friend. Then in 1996, he returned to sitcoms with Cosby, re-teaming with former co-star Rashad. They were unable to obtain the same level of success as their earlier effort, but they did enjoy some popularity, staying on the air for four years.
While working on Cosby, the comedian experienced a deep personal loss. His only son, Ennis, was killed in 1997, shot to death while changing a tire on his car on the side of a California highway. Around the same time, Cosby was caught up in a paternity scandal. A young woman named Autumn Jackson claimed that Cosby was her father and tried to blackmail him for $40 million, saying that she would go to the tabloids if she didn't get the money. She was arrested and convicted of extortion, receiving a 26-month prison sentence. (The conviction was later overturned and then reinstated.) Cosby admitted that he had a brief encounter with Jackson's mother, but he claimed he was not Autumn's father.
While coping with these difficult episodes, Cosby took on new professional challenges. He started a series of children's picture books featuring a character named Little Bill in 1997, which also became a children's TV program. A frequent speaker at commencement ceremonies, Cosby shared his advice in 1999's Congratulations! Now What?: A Book for Graduates. He took a serious look at the education system in 2000's American Schools: The $100 Billion Challenge, and paired up with his daughter Erika for 2003's Friends of a Feather: One of Life's Little Fables.
Awards and Return to TV
Cosby has received numerous accolades for his work, including multiple Emmy, Grammy, NAACP and People's Choice awards. He was also honored with the 2002 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 2003 Bob Hope Humanitarian Award and the 2009 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
In November 2013, Bill Cosby returned to the small screen with a new special on Comedy Central, Far From Finished. Directed by Robert Townsend, the production marked the comedian's first concert special in three decades.
Accusations of Sexual Misconduct
Cosby made headlines in 2014, not for his comedy, but his alleged misconduct. Over the years, he had faced numerous accusations of sexual assault. Cosby did not have criminal charges filed against him, but he did settle with one of his accusers out of court in 2006 after she launched a civil suit. In 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress brought new attention to earlier allegations by stating that Cosby "raped women" in his routine, according to Vulture.com.
After this incident, Cosby remained silent about these claims. More women soon came forth to claim that the comedian attacked them as well, including model Janice Dickinson. She told Entertainment Tonight that Cosby gave her wine and some type of pill before he allegedly raped her. These accusations led both NBC and Netflix to announce that they were dropping projects that they had with Cosby, with cancellations to come as well for his 2015 stand-up tour. Cosby did not respond directly to the claims. After a National Public Radio interview with Cosby in November 2014, a lawyer said in a statement that the comedian "won't dignify these allegations with any response."
That December, as more accusations of sexual assault surfaced, Cosby spoke to a reporter about the news coverage of the controversy surrounding him. He said that "I only expect the Black media to uphold the standards of excellence in journalism and when you do that you have to go in with a neutral mind," according to the New York Post.
Cosby's wife Camille stood by the comedian as well, issuing a statement in December as well where she positioned her husband as "kind" and "generous" and questioned the media's publishing of accounts from women whose backgrounds hadn't been vetted. Yet in 2015 more women came forth with charges of sexual assault, with there being ultimately dozens of other accusers with allegations of misconduct. Several women, including Dickinson, also filed defamation lawsuits against Cosby.
Then in early July 2015, court documents from 2005 were allowed to be unsealed by a federal judge after an Associated Press request. Testimony from a civil suit issued by Andrea Constand revealed that Cosby had gotten hold of prescription quaaludes during the 1970s with the intention of giving the drugs to women before engaging in sexual activity. During the testimony, due to his attorney's objection, Cosby did not state whether he gave women the drugs without their knowledge. In light of the new information, the comedian did not immediately issue a public statement. Later in the month, The New York Times reported on a related deposition in which Cosby spoke of meetings with a variety of women, admitting to giving drugs as part of his interactions and sexual pursuits.
In late July 2015, New York Magazine ran a multimedia cover story that photographed and individually interviewed 35 of the women who had encounters with Cosby, some of whom were in their teens at the time. The essays have similar details, with most of the women stating that they were drugged without their awareness or consent. Some of the interviewees also recount being directly assaulted.
"We must ask ourselves if the lesson we want to teach our kids is that, again, a woman's voice and body are not valuable or precious or valid," said model/actress Beverly Johnson to People, having also been featured in the New York Mag article. Johnson had stated in a Vanity Fair essay that Cosby had also surreptitiously drugged her during the days of The Cosby Show. "I know my truth, and I hope for a society that is sensitive to the protection of women, regardless of the stakes."
Cosby was to be deposed by Dickinson's team in relation to her defamation suit, but in late November Cosby's attorneys filed a request to have the deposition put on hold. Then in mid-December, in response to a group of seven women suing him for defamation via a Massachusetts court, Cosby filed a federal countersuit stating that said plaintiffs are making "malicious, opportunistic, and false and defamatory" charges. Days later, Cosby sued Johnson for defamation over her allegations of attempted assault.
As a result of the disturbing accusations, numerous colleges revoked honorary degrees awarded to Cosby. Additionally, a statue of the comedian was removed from Disney’s MGM Hollywood Studios park in July 2015.
Arrest and Criminal Trial
Although more than 50 women came forward with claims that the legendary comedian and actor had sexually violated and/or drugged them, Cosby managed to fend off the accusations. However, on December 30, 2015, a warrant was issued for Cosby's arrest for the alleged drugging and sexual assault of Andrea Constand in January 2004, a month shy of when the statute of limitations to file legal action would have expired.
On May 24, 2016, a judge in Pennsylvania determined there was enough evidence for the sexual assault case to proceed with a criminal trial. Following pretrial hearings in December, the trial was scheduled to begin the following spring, with Cosby facing a prison sentence of up to 30 years over three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
In June 2017, Constand took the stand to testify about her relationship with Cosby and her version of events. She said she viewed the older comedian as a mentor and, as a gay woman, she had no interest in a romantic relationship. However, during the night in question, she said he provided three pills to help her relax and then proceeded to force himself on her when she was "paralyzed" and unable to resist. The defense countered by highlighting some of the inconsistencies in her explanation and asked why she continued to maintain contact with Cosby if her accounts of being violated were true.
Although testimonies and closing arguments were delivered within six days, it soon became clear that the jury was having difficulty reaching a verdict, as they requested to review evidence multiple times. On June 17, with the jury deadlocked on all three counts following 52 hours of deliberations, the judge declared a mistrial.
Afterward, Cosby's publicist declared the result a "total victory" and lauded his client's restored legacy. However, the prosecution team rejected that depiction of the outcome and promised to bring Cosby back to trial.
In January 2018, while awaiting the retrial, Cosby took the stage at Philadelphia's LaRose Jazz Club for his first public performance since May 2015. Appearing as part of a program honoring jazz musician Tony Williams, Cosby told stories, joked about his diminished eyesight and even played drums with a band, declining to talk about the sexual assault case afterward. The following month, Cosby suffered another devastating loss with the announcement that his daughter Ensa had died from renal disease at age 44.
With his retrial scheduled to begin in April 2018, Cosby's team unsuccessfully sought a 90-day delay after the court agreed to allow the testimony of five women who, along with Constand, had accused Cosby of assault. The defense then attempted to replace Judge Steven T. O’Neill, whose wife had donated to a women's group that planned to rally on behalf of Constand.
The start of the retrial brought the revelation that Cosby had paid his accuser $3.38 million to settle the sexual assault lawsuit she filed in 2005. In his opening statement, prosecuting attorney Kevin Steele told jurors that Constand only sued after it appeared that Cosby would not face charges for his actions, though the defense seized on that transaction as evidence that she was motivated to squeeze as much money as possible out of her former mentor.
The day before Constand's scheduled appearance, model Janice Dickinson was among the five additional women who testified to Cosby's pattern of drugging and assault. Recalling a 1982 incident at Lake Tahoe, she said the famed comedian gave her a pill for cramps during dinner, and later she was unable to move after he climbed on her in his hotel room. Dickinson said she "wanted to punch him in the face" when confronting him about it the following day.
Cosby's team sought to highlight the inconsistencies in Constand's account of events, and even produced a former colleague of hers who testified that they once had a discussion about falsely accusing rich people of indiscretions to earn a payout. Constand denied having any such conversation.
On April 26, one day after beginning deliberations, the jury found Cosby guilty on all three counts of aggravated indecent assault. The 80-year-old, who looked down when the verdict was announced, then unleashed a reported "expletive-laden rant" at Steele, after the district attorney called him a flight risk and asked for bail to be revoked.
Cosby's lead lawyer said they would appeal. "We are very disappointed by the verdict," he said. "We don’t believe Mr. Cosby is guilty of anything."
Due to the verdict, Cosby's name and statue were removed from Television Academy's Hall of Fame and the actor was expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
On September 25, 2018, Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman in Philadelphia in 2004. Judge O’Neill called Cosby a “sexually violent predator” and declared, "It is time for justice. Mr. Cosby, this has all circled back to you. The time has come."
Cosby filed a formal appeal in June 2019, arguing that it was improper for the judge to permit the testimony of the five women to bolster Constand's case. Late that year, he made headlines for his first interview since being incarcerated, during which he said he would rather serve the full 10-year sentence than to show remorse for crimes he didn't commit. In June 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed on to hear the appeal.
In June 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Cosby’s sex assault conviction. Cosby will be released from prison.
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