Bill Cosby occupies a certain place in our cultural imagination that few would want to see dislodged: a comedian who is unquestionably an adult, as well as a father and a husband; a black man who makes no covert jabs into the underbrush of white guilt; an avuncular figure whose slow tales offer a humane respite to the underlying anxiety of force-fed 24-hour news.
Like a lot of poor kids of his generation, he looked on education as a way up and out of the streets and went to Temple University on a track scholarship. But it was as a bartender that he first realized the power of being able to make people laugh — and the awesome control it gives anyone who can master it —and that's the road he took.
Decades later, Bill Cosby seemed ubiquitous on the American entertainment scene. After it debuted in 1984, "The Cosby Show" was on top of the television ratings heap virtually every week.
His place at the forefront of the stand-up comedy scene is so assured that his routines have taken on the familiarity of an ongoing comic saga, like a leisurely series of pop feuilletons syndicated by a gifted storyteller (his three books, which read like extended comedy routines, have been bestsellers).
He's also made a dozen movies, but none of them commercial or critical successes. Cosby seems to lack the ability to shift rhythmic gears or to puzzle out fresh angles on character; he hasn't as yet located the fine actor's mercury in himself.
But the greatest source of his appeal may lie in his symbolic effort to summon up credible personal dignity in an age crackling with cynicism and dismay and to locate a genuine base for moral authority in a culture where the idea of authority has become — too often legitimately — suspect.
In the late 1990s, Cosby had to deal with both tragedy and scandal in his personal life.
In 1997, Cosby's only son, Ennis, was shot and killed in a robbery in Los Angeles. Mikail Markhasev, a Ukrainian immigrant, is serving life in prison without parole for the Jan. 16, 1997, killing of Ennis, 27, who had stopped to fix a flat tire near a freeway offramp. Cosby returned to the stage 16 days later, saying he realized that his fans were grieving too and he wanted to give them a release.
Later that year, a 21-year-old woman claiming to be his daughter was convicted for trying to extort $40 million from him. Cosby, who has been married to his wife since 1964, acknowledged having an affair with the woman's mother but denied paternity.
Cosby, who has a doctorate in education, sparked an angry national debate with a May 2004 speech at a gala marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court desegregation ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education. He derided black youths for wearing hats backward and "pants down around the crack" and parents for speaking poor English.
Since then he has ignited controversy nationwide with scathing critiques that black parents and teachers are failing their children, and with the assertion that black society cannot blame white people for low-scoring urban schools and teenage crime.