The current criminal trial in which Bill Cosby is accused of sexually assaulting a former Temple University basketball staffer has been marked by vivid testimony about intimate encounters, personal betrayals and deceptive behavior.
As the trial in a suburban courtroom north of Philadelphia gets set to move into its second week, the proceedings have all but obscured the groundbreaking achievements of a figure once known as “America’s Dad” who cultivated a charismatic and family-friendly persona through his phenomenally successful career lasting more than five decades in stand-up comedy, television and movies.
Cosby’s legal woes and the sordidness of the accounts from dozens of women who claim he drugged and sexually assaulted them has crippled the legacy of the performer who once stood alongside other African American legends such as Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones as a towering figure in American popular culture.
“Like many other people in this situation, Bill Cosby has put people in a position where they will have to contextualize his life, his achievements and whatever he’s judged to have done or not done,” said Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.”
But while the entertainer’s image has been severely damaged, some entertainers and scholars contend that Cosby’s legacy is not entirely shattered.
Lanita Jacobs, an associate professor of anthropology, American studies and ethnicity at USC, said Cosby still ranks high as a moral voice who stood up for more humanity in representations of the black community in his stand-up comedy. She added that he remains relevant among African American performers because of the barriers he broke down.
“What Bill Cosby was able to do for black comics, black actors and black actresses is something that African Americans can concede,” Jacobs said. “His legacy will always resonate with those comics. They will never throw him under the bus.”
Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton, comedian and author of “Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy,” pointed to the stream of Cosby breakthroughs: the wildly popular comedy albums of the 1960s, becoming the first African American co-lead of a network prime-time series in 1965 with “I Spy,” star and producer of numerous prime-time series, and the key force behind the phenomenally successful “The Cosby Show,” which revolutionized network TV in the 1980s with its portrayal of an upper-middle class black family.
“You just can’t erase that,” Littleton said.
Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault stemming from a 2004 encounter at his Cheltenham, Pa., mansion with Andrea Constand, a former Temple University women’s basketball staffer, in which he allegedly initiated sexual contact after giving her wine and drugs. Constand testified during the first week.
In interviews before his trial, Cosby, who has always maintained his innocence, expressed a strong desire to return to show business, saying he misses the sound of laughter and the thrill of performing.
"I still feel that I have an awful lot to offer in terms of my writing, in terms of my performance," Cosby told Sirius-XM radio host Michael Smerconish. In another talk with the National Newspaper Publishers Assn., he said: “I have some routines and storytelling that I am working on. I think about walking out on stage somewhere in the United States of America and sitting down in a chair and giving the performance that will be the beginning of the next chapter of my career.”
That chapter may already be closed, however. As the charges accumulated, NBC, the network that had aired “The Cosby Show” and was discussing a new project with him, cut its ties with him. Netflix pulled the premiere of a stand-up special. He was forced to cancel several concert dates.
Major entertainment entities will likely find it too risky to go into business with him due to potential backlash. Adding another complication to his desire to return is his health — the 79-year-old has looked frail at times in court appearances and has said he is now totally blind.
Noted veteran writer-producer Larry Wilmore: “His legacy is forever going to be tarnished. It may be one of those things that people compartmentalize. But it will overshadow his career because of the severity and just because of the sheer number of women involved.”
Wilmore, who created “The Bernie Mac Show” and whose recent projects include executive-producing ABC’s “black-ish” and co-creating HBO’s “Insecure,” said one key element in the perception of Cosby is the sense of betrayal for those who celebrated Cosby’s on-screen persona, which they thought was a true reflection of his life off-camera.
“I can remember hearing stories years ago, and I was one of the people who didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “I thought, ‘No, that can’t be true.’ You just didn’t want to believe it. That’s how powerful an image can be, especially someone that has a father-type image in the media.”
Noah, who grew up in South Africa, compared Cosby to Oscar Pistorius, the celebrated South African sprint runner who became known as “The Blade Runner” because he ran on prosthetic blades because both his legs are amputated below the knee. Pistorius in 2016 was convicted of shooting and killing his girlfriend in his home and was sentenced to six years in prison.
“Oscar was a legend, a hero who was then was exposed to the public of having another side,” Noah said. “In those situations, you have to understand that at the end of the day, your legacy will be in two parts. It will be about the good that you did and the bad that you did. That is true for all humans.”
Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, said timing is a factor in determining how Cosby will be viewed in the future.
“His high point of visibility and success was in the 1980s with ‘The Cosby Show,’ ” Boyd said. “True, he was a public figure beyond that. But if the last chapter is one where you’re in court over charges of sexual assault, it’s hard to refute that with career success, because that was so long ago. His accomplishments won’t be swept aside or diminished, but it will be hard be get beyond that.”
Actor-comedian Franklyn Ajaye said Cosby’s talent and accomplishments were so monumental they should still be studied and analyzed by those who want to go into comedy.
“Obviously, Bill Cosby's legacy will be a complex, double-edged one,” said Ajaye, who wrote “Comic Insights: The Art of Stand Up Comedy.’ “I grew up on Bill Cosby and vividly remember his breathtaking first appearance on ‘The Tonight Show.’ The brightness, freshness and universality of his comedy on his early albums captivated me and the nation at that time. He was a comedic storyteller par excellence, and I would still tell any aspiring stand-up comedian to listen to, and study, his early albums to learn the art of painting a vivid picture in an audience's mind.”
Some comics have expressed their respect for Cosby in subtle but significant ways. When “Saturday Night Live” in 2015 recruited Eddie Murphy to parody Cosby for its 40th anniversary show, Murphy refused.
He later told the Washington Post that he couldn’t bear to make light of Cosby during the furor surrounding the allegations.
“There’s nothing funny about it,” Murphy said. “If you get up there and you crack jokes about him, you’re just hurting people. You’re hurting him. You’re hurting his accusers. I was, like, ‘Hey, I’m coming back to “SNL” for the anniversary, I’m not turning my moment on the show into this other thing.'”
When Cosby heard about Murphy’s refusal to make fun of him on “Saturday Night Live,” he thanked him: “I am very appreciative of Eddie, and I applaud his actions.”
Littleton maintains that Cosby’s craft and accomplishments will live on in spite of his fall from grace: ”Future generations will see his work, and they will just laugh at a funny guy.”