Bill Cosby: A big legacy, forever tarnished


— For those who grew up with Bill Cosby’s comedy, feelings of sadness shouldn’t be confused with sympathy in appraising a legacy that — whatever the eventual outcome of the criminal case against him, in which a jury on Saturday failed to reach a verdict — has already been forever tarnished.

Cosby’s accomplishments as a comedian and TV star are near unique, in part because of the time in which he achieved them and the nature of his appeal.

His comedy albums in the 1960s universally explored childhood through a wonderfully exaggerated lens. An overweight kid weighed 2,000 pounds, and the never-seen belt his father threatened to use to discipline him was nine feet long, with hooks on it.

As Cosby grew older, so did his material, graduating into observations about marriage and parenthood, providing the foundation for “The Cosby Show.” In 2013, a then-76-year-old Cosby headlined a Comedy Central special, “Bill Cosby: Far From Finished,” which dealt with, among other things, some of the indignities associated with old age.

Cosby was a true cross-over star, and worked so clean that his early characters of Fat Albert and the gang could readily be transformed into a Saturday-morning TV show. After shifting his attention to parenting, he triggered NBC’s resurgence and made Thursday night “Must-See TV” with “The Cosby Show,” a sitcom whose idealized version of an African-American family drew the kind of massive ratings that have long since receded in television’s rear-view mirror.

Cosby also broke ground much earlier as the star of “I Spy,” the 1960s series that earned him Emmys and further cemented the notion that this was a star — even in that turbulent era — who transcended race. His whimsical banter with Robert Culp practically defined the “dramedy,” long before anyone had thought to coin the term.

Cosby’s squeaky-clean body of work made him a product-pitchman extraordinaire, from Jell-O to Coke. His association with children included hosting a revival of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” And he capitalized on his platform and popularity to become a lecturing voice to the African-American community about morality and hard work — a point of considerable irony and derision as the sexual-assault allegations against him mounted.

Indeed, it was what some saw as Cosby’s hectoring tone that brought long-dormant charges back into the spotlight. During a 2014 performance, comic Hannibal Buress questioned Cosby’s status as a moral authority and urged people to “Google ‘Bill Cosby rape,'” producing a clip that went viral.

Cosby is hardly the first celebrity to experience a fall from grace or the taint of scandal. But the nature of his image and the enormity of his success surely exacerbated the process, as well as suspicions that those surrounding him enabled, dismissed or at best ignored anything that might upset the gravy train.

In a recent Los Angeles Times piece, comedian/producer Larry Wilmore noted that while some will be able to compartmentalize their view of a comic whose Hall of Fame credentials earned him the title “America’s dad,” this unsavory chapter “will overshadow his career.”

Others noted that Cosby’s TV, comedy and cultural footprint is simply too large to erase. Although spared a conviction, faced with dozens of accusers, the damage to his image has been done. And even those who can still quote from old Cosby routines will be hard-pressed to do so again without wincing at thoughts of the source and this comedy legend’s tragic last act.