Bill Cosby’s three-to-10-year prison sentence and branding by a Pennsylvania judge as a “sexually violent predator” puts a final dagger in a damaged — but undeniably extensive — pop-culture legacy.
The 81-year-old actor broke racial barriers with I Spy in the late 1960s, enticed millions of kids to eat Jell-O pudding starting in the late ’70s and reignited the sitcom (and NBC) with The Cosby Show, which ranked as TV’s top series for five years in the late 1980s.
Poof. That’s all vanished.
Even before his conviction for sexual assault last April, “a young college student probably best knows Bill Cosby as that guy who got accused of all those horrible things,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of TV history at Syracuse University. Unlike other icons plagued by lesser scandals, from Martha Stewart to Mel Gibson, the case is “not just a footnote on his legacy; it’s an enormous cloud that completely covers his legacy.”
Adds a blunt-spoken Tom Nunan, a former UPN network president who now teaches at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television: “Bill Cosby was once known as America’s dad. Now, he’ll forever be known as America’s rapist. And that’s the fact. There may be an appeal, but his reputation is forever scarred.”
Former TV executive and author Tim Brooks calls Cosby “fairly unique in television history, in terms of the fall of what had once been a major star.” Many fans “separate out the personal lives of stars from who they are professionally,” but not this time, he says, calling Cosby “kind of television’s O.J.” Simpson.
Some argue the tarnish would have stuck to Cosby even with an acquittal, as it did to Simpson after his murder trial. But it stains more considering Cosby’s persona as an avuncular Everyman, and for a long stretch, America’s favorite dad.
“What he was so well known for was playing these characters of great dignity, great gentle humanity and paternal qualities, and this is so completely the opposite,” Thompson says. “It would be like suddenly hearing a scandal about Santa Claus. You’ve got a person who was really important in the history of the development of the medium; a person who was the star of the one of the most popular programs of all time, who rescued a network; (but) someone who was playing (a character) completely at odds” with the stories told by his accusers.
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Source: USA Today