Mr Imperfect

The real-life Bill Cosby looked to be indistinguishable from Dr Huxtable, his fictional persona in `The Cosby Show': affectionate, faithful, the perfect family man. Now that he appears tainted, can America love him still? By David Usborne

It is an American speciality. The personality - usually a performer - is raised high on a warm current of popular adulation and then, in an instant, something unpleasant happens and the air gets turned off. The public feigns horror but, in truth, the tumble from grace is the most thrilling part of the whole sad cycle.

Recent victims of the syndrome have included Woody Allen and OJ Simpson, but if the cruel fates had their own casting department then Bill Cosby would always have been first choice. With his phenomenally successful sitcom, The Cosby Show, the actor achieved magnificent fame. It was the most-watched situation comedy in television history and ran for eight years, prompting one well-known American historian to label the Eighties "the Cosby decade". In his role as Dr Huxtable, Cosby came to symbolise all that is wholesome about family and fatherhood.

But more than that, Cosby seemed almost to set himself up for disaster by inviting his public to blur the line between himself and his character. A former NBC chief, Brandon Tartikoff, writes in his book The Last Great Ride that Cosby wanted the show to demonstrate the "universality of experience". Cosby would say, "I want people, when they watch this show to say, `Hey, how did they get those microphones and cameras into my house?'." Cosby also wanted something else - to depict a black family that was functional and warm and did not fit racist preconceptions.

The melding of the Huxtable fiction and Cosby reality was deliberate. The Huxtable family, like Cosby, had four daughters and a son. Cosby, who extended the sitcom's success into several books, including one called Fatherhood, always admitted that the Huxtable boy, Theo, was inspired by his own, Ennis. Like Ennis, Theo was afflicted with dyslexia. The last episode of The Cosby Show had Theo graduating from college after overcoming the disability; Ennis Cosby graduated weeks later.

Consider the impact, therefore, of those first news flashes on 16 January. Ennis Cosby had been found dead, killed, apparently, while attempting to change a flat tyre on an LA freeway. In truth, we had known very little about the real Ennis, a very private man who never exploited the fame of his father and who, at 27, was studying at Columbia University in New York to become a teacher for disabled children. But for millions, it was as if someone close to them, almost someone of their own family, had been cut down.

In mourning, Cosby played the part we expected of him. Leaving his Manhattan home that same day to fly to the West Coast, he uttered only four words: "He was my hero". Reminded once again that tragedy can visit anyone, however fabulous their fame or wealth, America was awe-struck. Its sympathy for Cosby, his soft and comforting face bruised suddenly by grief, was pure and complete.

The Cosby myth, therefore, was not damaged. If our tabloid thirst for a real kill was to be satisfied, something more was needed. And, right on cue, it came. Two days later, police in New York arrested 22-year-old Autumn Jackson and an accomplice, Jose Medina, on charges of attempting to extort $40m from the television star. Ms Jackson, it transpired, believes that she is an illegitimate child of the star and was asking for money to buy her silence. She had sent an ultimatum to Cosby by fax on the day his son had been killed. Cosby denied her claims and everyone believed him.

For all of last week, the Cosbys stayed out of the public eye at the family estate in western Massachusetts. Reporters were met by the unequivocal sign on the driveway: "If you are not invited, do not pass through these gates". Ennis was buried in a herb garden close to the house. Out in the real world, meanwhile, the wheels of the Autumn Jackson case were turning. She and Medina were jailed pending trial (Autumn was released last Monday on $250,000 bail) and word began to seep out that she and Cosby were perhaps not entirely dissociated.

It began to look as if the Jackson mess was a case of a Cosby good deed gone wrong. Cosby is well known for his philanthropy to black Americans. He once gave the mostly black Spelman College in Atlanta $20m. He has helped numerous individuals with special hard-luck stories to achieve academic success. One such was Ms Jackson, who had studied in Florida using funds given by Cosby. So in Ms Jackson's case, the relationship had turned sour. But still the Cosby aura survived.

But then this week came Cosby's television interview with Dan Rather, the news anchorman for CBS, where the comedian is engaged in a new series simply called Cosby. Only a few snippets have been aired so far - the bulk has been saved for CBS's popular but flagging news programme 60 Minutes next Sunday night - but at a stroke it changed the character of the saga entirely.

Curiously, it was Cosby and not CBS that instigated the interview. As Mr Rather has since told it, the need to speak out came to the actor suddenly last Saturday night as he was driving back into Manhattan from Massachusetts with his wife, Camille. It was as if he recognised then that his time for humiliation had come and that his best option was to try at least to control the fall. It was triggered by the realisation that whereas before, when people recognised him through the car window they would react with a thumbs-up and a smile, on this night they were turning away from him "with very sad faces".

And so to Mr Rather, Cosby confessed all. The actor had had a one-night stand with Shawn Thompson, the mother of Ms Jackson, during the Seventies. The intake of breath across America was almost audible. This man whom we had so hopelessly muddled with the unimpeachable Dr Huxtable, who had preached - yes, preached - the importance of faithfulness and family unity for so many years and who in his own life had given names to all of his children beginning with the letter "E" to denote excellence, had sex outside marriage.

Even his denial that Autumn could indeed be his child was hardly convincing. "The mother of Autumn Jackson told me - the woman I had a rendezvous with - told me I am the father," he told Rather. "On the birth certificate it is not my name." Pressed about whether Autumn might not, then, be his offspring, Cosby said: "There is a possibility. If you said, `Did you make love to the woman?' The answer is yes. `Are you the father?' No."

The entertainer has already returned to CBS's studio complex in Queens to resume production of Cosby. Unusually, they taped one episode on Monday without a live audience, but the seats will be filled again for the taping of the next one tomorrow. Of his determination to get back to work, he disarmingly told Rather: "I think it's time for me to tell the people that we have to laugh - we have got to laugh." Camille, meanwhile, declared that her only concern was with finding those who killed her son. Any marital problems she may have had with her husband have been consigned to the past.

If that were that, Cosby might have a chance of regaining his former position as the comedian who elicits only smiles of appreciation wherever he goes. But he must know better. The investigation into Ennis's death has barely begun and then there is the trial of Autumn Jackson to look forward to. Americans love Bill Cosby, but they love tales like this - when the rich, famous and seemingly invulnerable are suddenly brought low - much, much more

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