In this April 24, 2018, file photo, Bill Cosby, left, arrives with his wife, Camille, for his sexual assault trial, at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa.
Photo: AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File
Photo: AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File

Cosby Show fans struggle with star’s new legacy

Just before 2 p.m. on Thursday, an alert popped up on Sydney Holmes’ Apple watch. A jury had found Bill Cosby guilty on three counts of sexual assault. She immediately sent a group text to her friends:

Y’all! They are going to put Cliff Huxtable in jail.

“I was sad and that brings feeling of guilt because you absolutely know he did all these things,” said Holmes, 39, of Atlanta. She hadn’t been so sure when reports first surfaced that Cosby had sexually assaulted several women dating as far back as 1965. But after subsequent allegations from more than 50 women, a criminal trial that resulted in a hung jury and finally, a guilty verdict in the retrial, she could no longer live in denial.

Holmes had watched “The Cosby Show” from the very first episode in 1984. “I was the same age as Rudy. Here was a kid who looked like me on the screen and Cosby was her dad. It was like Cliff Huxtable was my dad too,” she said. Now her “dad” is facing up to 10 years in prison. “This ruins the show for me,” said Holmes. “All I think about is the access he had and the power it gave him to do the things he did to those women.”

Bill Cosby has been a cultural icon for more than 50 years with “I Spy” and “The Bill Cosby Show” in the 1960s, a trifecta of blaxploitation films in the 1970s, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” the Jell-O Pudding Pops commercials, “The Cosby Show” and in the 2000s, “Little Bill.” While the guilty verdict gave some fans the final push to denounce both Cosby’s life and work, others said they can and will make a distinction between the man and the characters he created. His legacy, in either case, will be forever changed.

“It is done. He is going to be forgotten. He will be to media what Joe Paterno was to sports,” said Linda K. Fuller, author of the 1992 book “The Cosby Show: Audiences, Impact, and Implications.”

Fuller spent a lot of time on the set of “The Cosby Show” before it ended with the eighth season in 1992. That was several years after a bidding war in 1986 for syndication rights resulted in an unprecedented payout of $4.8 million per episode. “The Cosby Show” on NBC was routinely drawing one-third to one-half of all television viewers in the country each week. And Cosby was controlling it all with a team of publicists and attorneys who made sure his image stayed intact, Fuller said.

Cosby’s concern with image and reputation was something Victor George noticed more than a decade ago. George, 32, who currently lives in Raleigh, N.C., grew up middle class aspiring to have a family like the Huxtables. The show reinforced the decisions he was making in his life from choosing to attend an HBCU to becoming an attorney. “For me, it was confirmation that what I was doing was right,” he said.

But more than 10 years ago, he realized he had to separate Cliff Huxtable from Bill Cosby.

In the now-famous “Pound Cake” speech in 2004, Cosby took a highly critical position on black Americans and their lifestyle. George didn’t like it. “He started to become so degrading to African-Americans,” George said. “I remember I was like how dare you. He represented that portion of African-Americans who move up to assimilate into white culture and forget their identity.”

At that moment, black Americans got a glimpse into a side of Cosby that didn’t mesh with his public persona. The Huxtables had given them a playbook on black excellence, and now here was Cosby blasting black parents and children who didn’t live up to those fictitious standards.

“It is so important to not just have a good reputation, but to have integrity,” George said. “I have a lot of mixed emotions, but over the years, I have had to separate Bill Cosby from Cliff Huxtable, and this is the final moment that Cosby has died as a person I look up to.”

But not everyone is ready to let go. Prior to his conviction, some of Cosby’s co-stars were outspoken in their support, including Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy Huxtable). Atlanta-based Pulliam appeared with Cosby during the initial trial. In a June 2017 podcast, she said she supported Cosby because she believed he was innocent until proven guilty. “There is a difference between opinions and facts. The man that the world is painting Mr. Cosby to be is simply not the man I know or have ever experienced,” said Pulliam, who did not respond to a request for comment about the conviction.

Some fans who loved “The Cosby Show” are reluctant to let go in large part because there hasn’t been a show with the same mass appeal to take its place. “It was the No. 1 show for many years. He presented this family and these people in a way that was legible and devoid of all the other problematic constructs of black folks that had been seen in media,” said Beretta Smith-Shomade, associate professor of film and media studies at Emory University.

For black audiences, the show was affirming and aspirational. For white audiences, there was nothing to distract them from enjoying it. It may be harder for “The Cosby Show” to have that same impact now, but it is also harder for any show to have that kind of impact. The world of television has changed.

“You just don’t have the same kind of homogeneous eyeballs-on-the-screen audience that you had when Cosby was operating,” said Smith-Shomade. “It’s not that there haven’t been shows that would gather people together, they just don’t know it exists.”

When allegations against Cosby first surfaced, networks began pulling “The Cosby Show” from the airwaves. In December 2016, Atlanta-based Bounce TV brought the show back. A spokesperson for the network said while they considered the accusations to be serious, research showed that black consumers were making a distinction between Bill Cosby and his TV character. Six months later, TV One also began airing the reruns, citing research from 600 respondents which found that 81 percent would watch “The Cosby Show” and 80 percent said the allegations would not impact their decision.

But on Thursday, Bounce TV pulled the show from the airwaves again. A spokesperson for TV One said on Friday, the network had not yet made a decision about the show. Members of Amazon Prime can still stream all eight seasons of the show.

Even with limited viewing options, Chad Downey still plans to watch “The Cosby Show.” Downey, 39, grew up in rural North Carolina in a deeply Christian environment. “The Cosby Show” was the only show he was allowed to watch on television. When the spinoff show, “A Different World,” began airing in 1987, it resonated with Downey.

No one in his family had attended college, and the show, which followed Denise Huxtable’s (Lisa Bonet) exploits at Hillman College, opened his mind to the possibilities. “It was a large part of why I went to college,” said Downey, who was inspired by the character Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison). “I learned I could be smart, cool and black all at the same time.”

Downey is among those who choose to mentally separate Cosby from his on-screen persona. “Was Bill Cosby raping women when I was watching ‘A Different World’? Probably. But does that diminish the inspiration I got from Dwayne Wayne? The answer for me is no. Unless the paperwork from court says Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, MD, I am still going to raise my son on ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘A Different World,’” Downey said. “I will be there to explain to him once he gets older what the distinctions are.”

Downey was surprised by Cosby’s actions because it was so far from what he presented to the public, but then Downey never had any real expectations. “I don’t feel like he owed me anything. I didn’t feel like he betrayed me,” he said. “I just thought, this is another broken human being who was more broken than I thought he was.”

About the Author

Nedra Rhone
Nedra Rhone
Nedra Rhone has been a features writer for the AJC since 2006 covering people, places, pop culture and news, in and beyond metro Atlanta. She also writes...
X