The declaration Saturday of a mistrial in the aggravated indecent assault case against the 79-year-old comedian is extremely unlikely to make a difference as far as Cosby’s career prospects are concerned.
Cosby’s long run as a top comedian, TV star, and commercial pitchman came to an end in 2015. After dozens of women came forward with allegations of being raped and drugged by Cosby, it became impossible for him to headline a comedy tour or hawk Jell-O on TV. For a personality who had been part of the fabric of American pop culture for a half-century, this irreversible fall from grace may be the toughest sentence of all.
Cosby’s downfall came at a time when he had hoped to add another chapter to his storied TV career. He’d struck a deal to develop a new comedy at NBC, the network that made him a ground-breaking, Emmy-winning TV star in the 1960s with “I Spy” and made him a multi-millionaire in the 1980s with the smash success of “The Cosby Show.”
But as reports of shocking behavior going back decades cascaded, NBC backed out of the development pact and Cosby was unceremoniously dropped as a client by CAA. Netflix hastily tabled a planned comedy special that might have done a lot to introduce his brand of folksy, family-friendly humor to a younger generation.
Today, “Cosby Show” reruns and most other traces of his long career have been scrubbed from the vast expanse of the TV landscape. The only time Cosby appears on TV these days is in news coverage of his various legal travails. And that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The Montgomery County district attorney’s office has vowed to seek a new trial on the allegations that Cosby drugged and assaulted Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, in 2004 at his suburban Philadelphia mansion.
Constand was one of more than 50 women who came forward with horror stories involving Cosby. Public outrage was magnified by the fact that Cosby had previously represented so much of the American dream, a man who came from modest means and built a wildly successful career on the strength of his talent and hard work. At his peak in the 1980s, Cosby’s perch as the star of primetime’s most-watched series demonstrated that the nation could look beyond race to embrace an African-American star as a beloved father figure. Cosby further endeared himself to many in mainstream white America with his vocal criticism of what he saw as detrimental aspects of contemporary black culture.
The magnitude of these achievements had the effect of discounting the allegations of sexual-related misconduct and the legal settlements that dogged Cosby for years. When he was a star at the height of his power, there was enough of a barricade presented by his fame and his friendly image to suggest that these were the kind of gold-digging accusations that come with being a public figure. It’s telling that the dam broke for Cosby as he was getting to an age at which it was unlikely that he would have another resurgence in TV or movies. The generational change that Cosby faced was reinforced by the fact that the groundswell of scrutiny of his past conduct came after a standup routine in Cosby’s hometown of Philadelphia by a younger African-American comedian, Hannibal Buress. Buress flatly called Cosby a “rapist” in response to Cosby’s history of criticizing hip-hop stars and certain behaviors of some African-American youths.
Buress’ Oct. 16, 2014, appearance went viral on the Internet thanks to a cell phone video taken by a fan. A month later, former actress Barbara Bowman penned an op-ed in the Washington Post that declared “Bill Cosby raped me.”
Within weeks, Cosby began to lose the attributes that made him Bill Cosby. He was heckled during his live comedy appearances. TV shunned him but gave voice to his many accusers. Social media became a bully pulpit for high-profile detractors, including Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham. He lost the tributes and prestigious laurels that previously elevated him to national-treasure status, such as his appointment as a Temple University trustee, honorary degrees from schools including Fordham and Marquette, and the professorship he endowed at Spelman College.
A tidal wave of fresh lawsuits also began pouring in, including a suit that Cosby filed in December 2015 against seven women for defamation of character. On Dec. 30, 2015, the legal battle entered the criminal arena when he was charged in the Constand case.
Cosby’s past achievements provided him the means to post the $1 million bail that allowed him to remain free as the Constand trial wound through the court. At this point, there is no amount of money that can bring him out of Hollywood jail, no matter what happens at his next criminal trial.