Bill Cosby: The downfall of America’s Dad in The Guardian
Updated: May 12
As a new documentary on the US funnyman’s ris and fall airs, we speak to two of his accusers to examine how that public persona may yet lead to his ruin
When I was expecting my first child, my husband arrived home with a parenting book. Looking out from the cover, resplendent in a jazzy 80s sweater, was Bill Cosby twinkling confidently under the title, Fatherhood. Who, he seemed to be asking, wouldn’t want advice from “America’s Dad”?
Plenty of people today. In 2005, Cosby was accused of drugging, then sexually assaulting the director of a women’s basketball team.
When the prosecutor declined to take it further, the 30-year-old launched a civil suit, in which 13 other women lined up to testify that Cosby had assaulted or raped them, too. Then the case was settled out of court and, somehow, Cosby’s reputation was barely dented. Cosby himself has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
In the years that followed, the comedian was given awards, went on talkshows, and had a weighty biography written about him, with little notice of the number of allegations made against him. T
Today, as he once more faces a criminal trial for sexual assault, and the number of women accusing him of sexual misconduct has spiralled to almost 60, this seems inexplicable. Which is why a new BBC documentary, Cosby: The Fall of an American Icon, asks accusers, colleagues and journalists how the silence continued for so long.
Cosby is hardly the first well-loved star to be accused of stomach-churning crimes. Yet his artistic and political achievements – and what the case says about race relations in the US – make the story unique, according to director Ricardo Pollack. The 79-year-old actor, he points out, is not just a “comedic genius”, whose 50-year career influenced generations of performers from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock, but a “role model and pioneer” who kicked down racial barriers.
It was in the early 1960s that Cosby made his name in standup. As the civil rights movement unfolded, the Philadelphia-born son of a maid and an alcoholic naval steward father somehow managed to entrance black and white audiences alike with his funny, perfectly crafted stories.
He had made it – and a black man making it in America was a big deal then