I love Bill Cosby! Honestly, that phrase may not be enough to sufficiently describe my feelings for Bill. He was my boyhood idol. His influence on my life has been profound. I owe much of who I am to Bill Cosby, so the idea of love seems to fall short of exactly how I feel. It may be that I need more than one word: Adulation! Regard! Devotedness! And yet, I remain inarticulate.
While growing up, I watched everything Bill Cosby did. My father had several of his comedy albums; I memorized them backwards and forwards. Bill was one of two comics that I imitated and memorized. Richard Pryor was the other. I owe my sense of humor to Bill Cosby. However, for me, Bill Cosby was more than a comedian. Bill was my idea of a great man – a great Black man! He was good looking, talented, smart, and he was fearless. The Cos was a ladies man, but also good father and husband – devoted to his wife and children. Bill was educated; he collected art and was fluent in jazz. After my father, Bill Cosby was the man I aspired to be. Few get an opportunity to meet their idol, much less work with them. I was blessed in that regard, and even more blessed that I found my idol as clever, kind, and brilliant as I had imagined.
In 2014 a series of accusations hit the public consciousness. A number of women stepped forward to claim that the great Bill Cosby had behaved inappropriately with them – groping, propositioning, and exposing himself. There were also a number of women who leveled far more serious accusations. These women claimed that Bill had drugged them and had sex with them while they were unconscious. On the street and in the courtroom, that is called rape.
As the story broke, I had dozens of people reach out to me asking me if the stories were true. I was low man on the totem pole. I can’t imagine how inundated with inquiries were Malcolm Jamal Warner or Phylicia Rashad. It must have been hell for them. It was no picnic for me. Everyone wanted to know if my idol was guilty.
When I joined the cast of the Cosby Show in 1989, it seemed to be common knowledge that Bill played around. When I say common knowledge, I mean that it was just something that people seemed to know without anyone saying anything. Bill sleeping around was a “fact” that, like, the air, seemed to just be. You didn’t have to see it or hear it to know that it existed.
There was also the seeming unending parade of pretty young women that streamed through the studio. In fact, that is what some of us called it – the parade. Light skinned. “Good” hair. One prettier than the next. I was 28, healthy, single, and horny as hell! You will forgive me if I wasn’t really focused on Bill during the parades.
Of course, people said things to me as if they had first-hand knowledge of Bill’s business, and maybe they did. I suspect however, that rather than eyewitness testimony, what they had was the same thing that I had: speculation and gossip. I love dish as much as the next person, but I do prefer to see with my own eyes.
I also know that men who are wealthy and powerful are always the target of gossip, lies, and slander. Hell, you don’t even have to be wealthy, powerful, or good looking. The truth is that people will lie about you just because they are bored!
Still, his infidelity to his marriage vows would not have surprised me. I don’t say that as any comment on Bill’s character. I say it only because I think it would be extremely difficult for any rich, powerful man to say, “No” every single time a woman threw herself at him. I was a scrub and the opportunities for sex that were tossed my way were numerous. I suspect that if I had been really famous and extremely wealthy, the opportunities would have increased exponentially (as would have the lies and gossip). Does any man have the fortitude to turn so much nookie down every single time? Some, perhaps. I don’t think many.
I am also of the opinion that some women who are married to prominent men strike a deal with themselves. They believe that, for men, the act of sex is removed from love. The bargain they make is that as long as their husbands continue to bring home the checks and don’t bring home any babies or diseases, they will overlook any dalliances.
So, in 1989, my attitude was that if Bill was cheating on Camille, I am fairly certain Camille knew. Hey, if everyone who claimed to know actually knew, then certainly Camille knew, and had long ago made her peace with it. At any rate, it was none of my business. I never saw Bill engage in any inappropriate behavior. I certainly never saw him drug anyone. So, all I have is the same gossip as everyone else.
As the accusations began to increase, I became increasingly disturbed. I was fairly certain that some of the women were lying through their teeth, but certainly not all of them. Discovering that the man you idolize may be a serial rapist is a bit traumatic. I don’t imagine it is anything near to the trauma of the alleged victims. Nevertheless, I found it unsettling.
I was particularly shaken the afternoon I bumped into an old friend while shopping. The controversy was at its height. The story of Bill was all over the press. I hadn’t seen this woman for many years. Back in the day, I had asked her out on a few dates, but was relegated to the friend zone so fast it made my ears wiggle. We had kept in touch for a few years, but our lives had taken different paths. Over the years, I had watched with a passive interest as her career grew, so I was excited to see her and catch up a bit.
As we spoke, I recalled that Bill had been her mentor (play father, teacher…something. I couldn’t quite recall what it was). The question popped into my head.
“Hey, do you mind if I ask you something?”
She looked at me and then asked, “Is it going to make me cry?”
I was a bit taken aback. “Well,” I stammered. “I hope it doesn’t make you cry.”
She smiled. “Go ahead and ask your question.”
“Back in the day,” I started. “I remember that you knew Bill – that he was like your mentor or something. Did he ever…”
Before I finished the sentence, she began to cry.
We spent the next two hours sitting on a bench talking. Through tears, she told me her story. She cursed him for violating both her trust and her body. She cursed herself for not being smarter, and for degrading herself in pursuit of success. I listened patiently. As she began to run out of steam, she turned to me. “Do you believe me?”
“Yes.” I said. “I believe you.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I don’t believe that you are crazy and only a crazy person would sit with me all this time and share a fantasy.”
I am not sure if our conversation was cathartic for her. I know it was heart-breaking for me.
As I drove home, I battled my emotions. I felt for my friend, for the violation of her trust, loyalty, and body. I was angry with Bill. He had money, fame, and power; he was a walking aphrodisiac! Why? I was also angry at myself for falling for the okey-doke, of putting Bill on a pedestal. Something changed inside me during that drive; call it the last gasp of a mocking bird.
More recently, there were a series of court documents that were unsealed and revealed a dark side to the Cos. Rather than spending his time bouncing kids on his knee and eating Jell-O brand pudding, this Bill was involved in illegal drugs and illicit sex, fornication, and perhaps more.
I’ve done a lot of thinking over these weeks. The good Bill has done over the years is real and enduring. I am not prepared to simply dismiss his brilliance, his wisdom, or his legacy. You see, all of that is a part of who I am as a man – as a Black man. I am not going to toss all of that away, at least not yet. It seems to me that one should be able to look with sober eyes and yet hold on to those elements of substance that are both true and comforting.
Over the weekend, Bill turned 78 years old. It is with all of the love I still have for him and the reverence of one who has idolized him for a lifetime that I offer this plea.
Bill, you have a family that loves you, a wife who is devoted to you; you have more money than you can spend. Please, go live a quiet country life. Allow those of us who truly love you to preserve just a bit of our enchantment.