A generation ago, Bill Cosby played the role of America's Dad, with a No. 1-rated family sitcom, a runaway bestseller about fatherhood and a lucrative ad career built around his Everyman image.
His legacy as a pioneering African American entertainer seemed secure. Early success as a stand-up comic was followed by a starring role in "I Spy," the 1960s TV hit. In the 1980s, he starred as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable in "The Cosby Show," one of the first sitcoms centered on an affluent African American family.
Now, his career stands threatened by allegations of sexual misconduct — with media companies running away from the man they once embraced.
The scandal will "certainly shoulder its way into" the way Cosby is remembered, even after his death, said Martin Kaplan, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC.
"Obits traditionally have a 'who' sentence at the start," Kaplan added. "Until now, his would have been: 'Bill Cosby, who ...' followed by something about the Huxtables and being America's Dad. Now I think that sentence will continue with ... this sad, sordid history now unfolding."
The onetime father figure is battling claims that he sexually assaulted women, including aspiring actresses looking to break into showbiz. The alleged victims who have recently stepped forward include former model Janice Dickinson, whose rape claim was vigorously denied by a Cosby attorney this week.
The escalating crisis of image forced NBC officials on Wednesday to scrap plans to develop a Cosby comedy pilot in which he would have played the grandfather in an extended family.
"We can confirm that the Cosby project is no longer in development," said a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly. By Wednesday afternoon, the cable network TV Land announced it was pulling episodes of "The Cosby Show" from its channel indefinitely.
Those actions followed an interview with Dickinson that aired Tuesday on "Entertainment Tonight" that prompted Netflix to back out of a special in honor of the comedian. "At this time we are postponing the launch of the new stand-up special 'Bill Cosby 77,'" a Netflix spokesman said in a statement.
The program, taped on the performer's 77th birthday, had been scheduled to premiere Nov. 28. The statement neither gave a reason for the postponement nor specified whether it would be rescheduled.
Meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights and women's groups on Wednesday called on the Treasure Island resort in Las Vegas to postpone an upcoming appearance by Cosby pending an investigation of his accusers' claims.
Although the allegations have only recently gained national attention, they date decades.
In 2005, Temple University staffer Andrea Constand sued Cosby, claiming he drugged and groped her during a visit the year before to his Philadelphia home. During that case, 13 other women came forward with similar stories and were prepared to testify, according to published reports. But her lawyers reached an out-of-court settlement with Cosby in 2006; the terms were not disclosed. The scandal died down so much that it was not mentioned in Mark Whitaker's biography of Cosby published earlier this year. "There were no definitive court findings," Whitaker explained to the Huffington Post.
Further back, in 1997, a woman named Autumn Jackson who claimed to be Cosby's biological child was convicted of trying to extort millions of dollars from the entertainer. Cosby admitted to a relationship with Jackson's mother but denied paternity.
The accusations returned to the spotlight last month after a routine by stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress made fun of Cosby's fatherly image in light of the allegations of sexual misconduct.
Buress' routine, captured on a jerky smartphone camera, quickly ricocheted around the Internet. It proved the match that lighted the fuse. On Nov. 13, the Washington Post published a first-person piece by Arizona artist Barbara Bowman in which she claimed that Cosby had drugged and repeatedly raped her in 1985, when she was a 17-year-old aspiring actress.
Cosby, who lives in Santa Monica, would not comment. But on Nov. 10 — with readers still buzzing about Buress' act — Cosby's Twitter account invited readers to make him an Internet meme. Users responded with gag photos and jokes that identified him as a serial rapist.
By the end of the week, he reacted with stony silence when NPR's Scott Simon asked him repeatedly about the allegations, which by then included Bowman's account.
A Cosby attorney followed up with a statement that characterized the allegations as "discredited," without elaboration. The attorney also said that neither Cosby nor any of his representatives would offer further comment.
But Cosby's team had more to say this week, after Dickinson, a former supermodel and reality TV star, accused Cosby of raping her in Lake Tahoe in 1982.
"Janice Dickinson's story accusing Bill Cosby of rape is a lie," Martin Singer, a Hollywood attorney often hired by celebrities facing scandals, wrote in a statement. Singer added that in a 2002 interview, Dickinson said that Cosby "blew her off" after she spurned a romantic overture from him. He also denied that anyone from Cosby's team had pressured her to scrub the rape story from a book she wrote.
Many of the claims involve alleged crimes that occurred many years or even decades ago, well beyond the statute of limitations in many states. California, for instance, has a limit of six years on all serious felonies except capital crimes, such as murder.
However, "if there are charges of sexual assault against minors, or DNA evidence has been recently discovered, the statute of limitations could be longer," said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School. Accusers victims could also pursue civil cases against Cosby.
That Cosby finds himself in this situation at all is something of a shock. During the mid-1980s, he was one of the most popular and admired entertainers in the world, credited for revitalizing the sitcom genre and helping reverse the fortunes of a major network, NBC, with "The Cosby Show," one of the most popular TV series of all time.
Even before that, Cosby broke down racial barriers onstage and on-screen. He became a hugely successful comedian during the 1960s, with a homespun, conversational style that sharply contrasted with the raunchier fare of "chitlin circuit" comics such as Redd Foxx. Aiming for the mainstream, Cosby steadfastly avoided foul language or sex talk in his routines. He created a popular children's cartoon, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," inspired by his experiences growing up.
Now that legacy threatens to crumble.
"His was a reputation built like a house of cards, and it collapsed," said Howard Bragman, a veteran Hollywood publicist and crisis manager. "That's the sad part: mentoring young people and changing the perception of the black family and being vocal about issues that he was passionate about — there was a lot he did that was good."
But "I don't see any future left for him in the business," he added. "I can't imagine a network or a company that will want to be in business with him after this."
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.