Bill Cosby, the Downfall of a Pop Culture Icon

By
Photo: Getty Images

To many he was Dr. Cliff Huxtable, America’s dad and neighbor. There was nothing he could do wrong -- or at least seemingly so -- and so it came as a surprise to many (and probably to him), when in 2014, a comedian cracked, “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby.” Three years later, he’s standing trial for sexual assault.

Broad City star Hannibal Buress’ 2014 comedy set in the veteran entertainer’s hometown of Philadelphia reignited a firestorm of sexual assault allegations that had largely been suppressed thanks to Cosby’s overwhelming star power. During an Entertainment Tonight interview, former supermodel Janice Dickinson accused Cosby of raping her in a Lake Tahoe hotel room in 1982. Cosby’s then-lawyer Marty Singer, high-powered attorney to stars like Kim Kardashian, dismissed her claims as a “lie,” and she responded with a defamation lawsuit.

However Cosby’s attempts to move past the accusations weren’t as useful this time. In response to Buress’ set, another alleged victim, Barbara Bowman, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post asking readers why it took a man’s joke for the public to believe that she and others had been abused and silenced by Cosby. More women began to come forward, and at 77 years old, light years away from his groundbreaking sitcom The Cosby Show, Cosby was primed for a fall from grace.

BILL COSBY: A Timeline of Alleged Sexual Assault Claims

To understand Cosby’s celebrity erosion, one must go back to 2005, when a Temple University employee named Andrea Constand accused the comedian of sexually assaulting her in his Pennsylvania home one year earlier. After the alleged attack, Constand quit her job as director of operations for the women’s basketball program and returned home to Ontario, Canada, where she told her mother of the alleged abuse and they went to the authorities in the U.S. In his deposition, Cosby said he was immediately attracted to Constand and that a mentor-mentee relationship formed between the two. Though, she said she had no romantic interest.

One night, Constand claimed, she went to Cosby’s home for dinner and a chat about her career. While there, she says he offered her pills to relax, which she claims made her feel “frozen,” and that Cosby allegedly sexually assaulted her while she was under their influence. When she regained consciousness, she claims that Cosby was standing in his bathrobe and ushered her out casually. Upon reviewing the case, Pennsylvania District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. decided against charging and prosecuting Cosby. Unable to pursue criminal charges against Cosby, Constand sued him in civil court. During a deposition, Cosby admitted to “affairs” and characterized his use of Quaaludes with women he “wanted to have sex with” as acceptable and consensual. However, before their day in court, Constand and Cosby settled for an undisclosed sum and a confidentiality agreement.

In 2006, Dickinson mentioned during an interview with Howard Stern that she’d wanted to write about the comedian but claimed her publisher, HarperCollins, wouldn’t allow her to include in her 2002 autobiography No Lifeguard on Duty: The Accidental Life of the World's First Supermodel. In 2014, she reiterated her story to ET, and this time she was part of a loud chorus of women publicly claiming Cosby was a sexual predator as far back as the 1960s. (Cosby’s lawyer responded at the time, stating that “HarperCollins can confirm that no attorney representing Mr. Cosby tried to kill the alleged rape story (since there was no such story) or tried to prevent her from saying whatever she wanted about Bill Cosby in her book.”) Bowman’s Washington Post op-ed hit newsstands, and others, like Kristina Ruehli, came forward in Philadelphia Magazine. However, many of the television star’s accusers over the past five decades say they hadn’t pressed charges because they were intimidated by Cosby’s celebrity and the intimation that no one would believe their stories.

BILL COSBY: Keshia Knight Pulliam Defends Her Support, Witness Breaks Down in Tears on Day 1 of Trial

As 2014 rolled on, more and more alleged Cosby victims came forward. By year’s end, supermodel Beverly Johnson had penned her own story of alleged abuse at the hands of Cosby in a Vanity Fair essay, writing he drugged her “good” with a coffee during a Cosby Show meeting. She claimed to have waded through the haze to call him a “mother**ker,” startling him enough to send her home in a taxi. For Cosby’s side, as fast as accusers like Tamara Green, Therese Serignese, Linda Traitz, Louisa Moritz, Barbara Bowman, Joan Tarshis and Angela Leslie sued him for libel in Massachusetts, his legal team adamantly denied all accusations, asserting none of their claims were true and even filing countersuits. However, instead of looking like he was thwarting attacks by money-hungry opportunists, as he had claimed, Cosby appeared incensed by those who were speaking out.

But soon the conversation surrounding the comedian’s alleged behavior became unavoidable, as other pop culture titans started speaking out about Cosby. Jerry Seinfeld simply told ET that the situation was “sad and incomprehensible,” while Chris Rock was at a loss, saying, “[2014 was] a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin [Williams], we lost Joan [Rivers] and we kind of lost Cosby." When Tina Fey, whose 2009 joke about Cosby on 30 Rock quickly resurfaced in light of the allegations, and Amy Poehler hosted the 2015 Golden Globes, the duo joked that “Sleeping Beauty just thought that she was grabbing coffee with” the comedian. Fey also took on Cosby in a Christmas-themed sketch when she hosted a December 2014 episode of Saturday Night Live. Judd Apatow adamantly defended Cosby’s accusers, even revealing his personal connection to one of his alleged victims. “The Cosby thing I took seriously because I know one of the victims, who is not going to come forward," he told Rolling Stone. Meanwhile, Amy Schumer addressed the atmosphere surrounding Cosby head-on with the May 2015 sketch “Court of Public Opinion: The Trial of Bill Cosby,” on Inside Amy Schumer.

By July 2015, New York Magazine had assembled 35 of Cosby’s accusers for a photo shoot and recorded each of them describing their alleged experiences in short videos. The women’s backgrounds run the gamut: actresses, models, comedy writers, bartenders at watering holes he frequented. For all of their varied introductions to Cosby, the common thread was how they say they were allegedly drugged, assaulted and then dismissed by the comedian. Some claim they were assaulted more than once. Publicly, it was became unfashionable to say, as Damon Wayansdid, that Cosby’s accusers were “unrapeable,” or that one was simply unable to understand how he could ever do something so heinous, as longtime Cosby supporter and The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg did. The host eventually admitted that Cosby might be guilty of the alleged assaults. Ebony Magazine published a picture of The Cosby Show cast under cracked glass and summoned black America to discuss the mounting allegations against a former hero. How could a man who’d been so influential in the progress of black people on television and in education be accused of such evil? Brown University, among other schools, rescinded the actor’s honorary degree, and museums had no idea what to do with their art collections about or donated by star.

BILL COSBY: Comedian Implies Racism, Revenge Behind Sexual Assault Allegations

Everything was tainted.

On December 30, 2015, newly elected Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Kevin Steele issued a warrant for Cosby’s arrest in connection to the sexual assault of Constand in 2004, just before the case’s statute of limitations ended. He was arraigned on one charge of aggravated indecent assault. Cosby's bail was set at $1 million with additional conditions of surrendering his passport and having no contact with the alleged victim. He posted $100,000 (10 percent of the bail, as required) and was released. Altogether, Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault in the case. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Cosby has not been convicted in this case or criminally charged in regard to the other accusations against him. He has also repeatedly denied that any of these allegations are true. Cosby's attorneys gave a statement to ET, saying, "The charge by the Montgomery County District Attorney's office came as no surprise, filed 12 years after the alleged incident and coming on the heels of a hotly contested election for this county's DA during which this case was made the focal point. Make no mistake, we intend to mount a vigorous defense against this unjustified charge and we expect that Mr. Cosby will be exonerated by a court of law."

The following year was a collection of legal volleying between the comedian’s legal team and prosecutors in Pennsylvania, California -- where Playboy model Chloe Goins, who alleged that Cosby sexually assaulted her at the Playboy Mansion in 2008, filed a sexual battery suit -- and Massachusetts, where seven women were suing him for libel. During a 2016 deposition, Cosby’s wife, Camille, maintained she had “no opinion” about whether her husband violated their marriage vows when he obtained Quaaludes to have sex with young women. Cosby’s legal team continued filing paperwork to delay his trial and even sued Constand, charging that she broke her confidentiality agreement by speaking with police. He later dropped that suit to “focus his efforts on defending himself against the claims that have been lodged against him,” his lawyer said in a statement. Cosby also previously dropped a defamation suit against Johnson.

BILL COSBY: Malcolm-Jamal Warner on His Concern Over Legacy of 'The Cosby Show'

Ahead of Cosby’s first day of trial on June 5, his legal team provided a statement to ET saying, "Mr. Cosby is no stranger to discrimination and racial hatred, and throughout his career Mr. Cosby has always used his voice and his celebrity to highlight the commonalities and has portrayed the differences that are not negative -- no matter the race, gender and religion of a person. The time has come to shine a spotlight on the trampling of Mr. Cosby's civil rights."

But now that Cosby’s court date is upon us, it’s easy to track how his star fell, despite last-ditch efforts by his daughter Evin Cosby to proclaim her father’s innocence in a recent open letter on Black Press USA. “The public persecution of my dad, my kids’ grandfather, and the cruelty of the media and those who speak out branding my father a ‘rapist’ without ever knowing the truth, and who shame our family and our friends for defending my dad, makes all of this so much worse for my family and my children,” she writes.

Elsewhere, America is still trying to make sense of the man as American as Jell-O being an alleged sexual predator. TheCosby Show reruns are cancelled, NBC nixed a new show from the comedian and Netflix scrapped his comedy special after protests popped up outside of his performance venues. In Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix standup special, he compared the dichotomy of Cosby’s new reputation to discovering ice cream itself was a rapist.

In a way, anyone who enjoyed The Cosby Show, A Different World, Fat Albert or any of the comedian’s standup or books is facing, or has already faced, a reckoning.