With Bill Cosby standing trial this week in the US on three charges of sexual assault, the BBC last night aired ‘Fall of An American Icon’ – a documentary notable for two things – firstly, the number of women willing to stand up and say they were assaulted by arguably America’s most beloved, pioneering entertainer, and their longtime helplessness in the face of a wall of denial by the establishment that Bill Cosby could be anything other than the friend-to-all he appeared in America’s number one-rated show.
Even as it seems his day of reckoning is upon him, the documentary highlighted some particularly gut-wrenching assets of the long history of his personal behaviour, namely…
1. Just how big a star he was. Even before the phenomenon that was ‘The Cosby Show’, he had already smashed through racial ceilings, becoming the first African American actor to star in a US primetime network show, with ‘I Spy’. He won three consecutive Emmy Awards for the role.
2. Then came Cliff Huxtable, Cosby’s role in his self-named show. Over half of the TV sets in America were tuned in to watch ‘The Cosby Show’, with one commentator reflecting, “No show is going to pull those kinds of numbers ever again.”
3. People didn’t just like ‘The Cosby Show’. One astute commentator pointed out that fans also “liked liking The Cosby Show. It was seen as a social good.” It made white people feel good, it made black people feel proud. Cliff Huxtable was voted “America’s Greatest Dad”.
4. We learned that even someone as cynical, doubting, irreverent as comedy legend Richard Pryor idolized him, Richard’s widow Jennifer Lee Pryor reveals. “You didn’t get bigger than Bill. He was everywhere.”
5. But… Everyone already knew he was a “serial cheater” on his wife – “that was nothing new,” says Jennifer Lee Pryor. New female faces would regularly appear on the set of ‘The Cosby Show’, and it was generally recognised that he liked women, despite his long, celebrated off-screen marriage.
6. One of the women complainants in the doc claims Cosby escorted her to Atlantic City and assaulted her in the Trump Taj Mahal hotel, with the promise of a role in ‘The Cosby Show’. Footage showed her later single appearance on the sitcom.
7. In 2009, the great and good gathered to celebrate Cosby’s unique contribution to American comedy. 13 women had been prepared to testify against him for assaults dating back decades, but nobody in the hall mentioned it, as Jerry Seinfeld expressed his gratitude for the “opportunity to publicly thank him for all that he has meant to me”.
8. In a filmed interview, a journalist asked Bill Cosby about the allegations made against him. “There is no comment about that,” he replied. “Now can I have something from you? Assurance that that will not appear anywhere.”
Bill Cosby is currently on trial in Pennsylvania. Dozens of women say Mr Cosby assaulted them, but statutes of limitation rules mean he is on trial for only one allegation.
Chief prosecutor Prosecutor Kristen Feden told jurors in her opening statement that the defendant had “used his power and his fame and his previously practised method of placing a young, trusting woman in an incapacitated state so he could sexually pleasure himself”.
Defence lawyer Brian McMonagle countered that Mr Cosby was the victim of false accusations.
“Today I get a chance, with your help, to right a wrong,” he told the jury. “I get a chance, with your help, to protect a man from the destruction of the rest of his life.”