Bill Cosby: from US cultural icon to prison... and now, a reprieve

A new chapter in the 83-year-old comedian's tumultuous life story was written Wednesday when he walked free from prison after Pennsylvania' Supreme Court vacated his conviction.

Attorney Jennifer Bonjean and Bill Cosby speak outside of Bill Cosby's home on 30 June 2021 in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania. Cosby was released from prison after a court overturned his sex assault conviction. Picture: Michael Abbott/Getty Images/AFP

NEW YORK - Bill Cosby's trailblazing Hollywood career is recognised in the Smithsonian's African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington - a decision the institution defended even after his conviction for sexual assault, which was noted in the display.

A new chapter in the 83-year-old comedian's tumultuous life story was written Wednesday when he walked free from prison after Pennsylvania' Supreme Court vacated his conviction.

READ: US court quashes Bill Cosby's sex crimes conviction, allowing his release

It was another stunning turn of events for the Emmy and Grammy winner once known as "America's Dad," whose image was shattered when he was convicted in 2018 of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004.

Cosby - the first African American actor to star in a primetime US television drama and the man who personified upper-middle-class black success on the small screen on his long-running eponymous sitcom - once commanded the utmost respect.

His cultural influence was once so great that chat show queen Oprah Winfrey credited Cosby with helping to pave the way for America's first black president, Barack Obama.

_The Cosby Show _- which ran from 1984-92 - "introduced America to a way of seeing black people and black culture that they had not seen before," Winfrey said in 2013.

But then a Pennsylvania jury convicted him and he was led away in handcuffs - what had been thought to be the final fall from grace after years of scandal.

Wednesday's decision by the high court in Cosby's home state of Pennsylvania upended the script once again.


When comedian Hannibal Buress took to the stage in 2014 to tell Cosby to stop moralising to African Americans and accused him of being a "rapist," the floodgates opened.

Around 60 women, many of them onetime aspiring actresses and models, came forward publicly to brand him a calculating, serial predator who plied victims with sedatives and alcohol in order to have sex with them over four decades.

But only one case had not surpassed the statute of limitations: the alleged assault of Andrea Constand at Cosby's home in the Philadelphia area.

Both a first and a second trial - which ended with his conviction - revealed a dark underside to his signature role of benevolent father figure and affable obstetrician Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

"Everybody knows you, Mr Cosby," said a police officer taking down his original deposition.

"Not really," came the elusive reply.


Born on 12 July 1937 in Philadelphia to a maid and a Navy cook, William Henry Cosby Jr. quickly emerged as the class clown, and joined the Navy after 10th grade, finishing high school by correspondence.

He won an athletic scholarship to Temple University and started doing stand-up. In his early 20s, he appeared on variety programs, but got his first big break in 1965 when he co-starred in the espionage thriller I Spy.

It was a pivotal moment - he was the first black actor in a starring role in a weekly primetime drama. He won three Emmys for the show and went on to star in a string of successful movies in the 1970s.

Then from 1984 to 1992, he portrayed Huxtable, the funny dad with a lawyer wife in The Cosby Show - so named thanks to his star power.

The sitcom was a roaring success, turning Cosby into a major figure of US pop culture in the second half of the 20th century.

He was showered with awards for the show, which anchored NBC's powerful Thursday night sitcom line-up and for the first time put an affluent African American family on primetime, turning him into an instant role model.

Along the way, he authored best-selling books, and was for decades a member of the Temple board of trustees until he resigned in 2014, stripped of honorary degrees as sexual assault scandals mushroomed.

Comedian friends like Whoopi Goldberg who once supported him denounced him.

But not once did Cosby publicly express any remorse.

In a public relations offensive before his first trial, and claiming to be legally blind, he suggested that racism had played a role in his legal woes, insisting he still wanted to write and perform.

Cosby did not testify at trial. Through it all, his wife of more than half a century, Camille, has publicly defended him.

The couple have five children. Their son Ennis was shot dead in 1997 while changing a tire in California and daughter Ensa died of renal disease in 2018.

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