Bill Cosby was everyone’s TV dad in the 1980s in the groundbreaking sit-com “The Cosby Show.” But by then he was already deeply engaged in behavior that would lead to his conviction on three counts of aggravated indecent assault earlier this week. How did it happen?
Accused of drugging and sexually assaulting dozens of women over the course of his six-decade career, Cosby clearly acted on what must have been a strong sense of entitlement and a belief that he would never be called into account for his actions. He almost got away with it.
Part of that entitlement may have stemmed from his seemingly unbreachable image as the world’s nicest guy. But Cosby was also coddled and fiercely protected by one of Hollywood’s most powerful agents, Norman Brokaw of The William Morris Agency.
David Salidor met Cosby several times during the 1970s through his father, who worked for MCA/Universal records. By then, Cosby was a big star, who had a string of successful comedy albums.
Salidor saw none of the affable comedian in Cosby that was his trademark. The actor was aloof, distant, cold, and constantly shielded by William Morris agents, he recalled.
“A brief hello was granted, but I got a distinct chill from Cosby,” says Salidor, who now owns his own public relations company in New York City.
“He did four albums for Universal, but his entourage always was the first in, and the last out. I grew up loving ‘I Spy’ and couldn’t believe this was the same guy,” he says.
Norman Brokaw was singularly responsible for Cosby’s career success and for keeping his treasured client’s perverse behavior under wraps. “Brokaw was the bad seed, he was the enabler, just an awful person,” Salidor recalls.
Brokaw was one of Hollywood’s original super agents. He literally rose from the mailroom to become president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the William Morris Agency.
As such, he represented the biggest names in show business, including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Donna Summer, Warren Beatty, Brooke Shields, Ivana Trump, Clint Eastwood and countless others. He was fiercely protective of them all.
Over the next four decades, Brokaw co-designed and orchestrated Cosby’s work in film, publishing, commercials, recording and the long-running series, “The Cosby Show,” according to his obituary in the Beverly Hills News. He died last year at 89.
Back then a press agent’s biggest job was to keep negative publicity out of the press. Whether it was Rock Hudson’s homosexuality, a star’s drunkenness, or trouble with women, Hollywood had its secrets–and Cosby’s behavior was one of them.
In Cosby, Brokaw, who was Jewish, must have seen a little of himself. Although their early lives differed somewhat, both felt the sting of discrimination and both started at the bottom of their professions.
Cosby went on to become a groundbreaking actor. He was an African-American man who could appeal to both white and black audiences, at a time when America was still patently racist, and Jim Crow ruled the South.
Philadelphia was one of the most integrated cities in the nation during that period, and Cosby grew up around white people.
Although his mother was a maid and his father a mess steward in the Navy, he was athletically and academically gifted. He attended Philadelphia’s Central High School, an academically rigorous college prep school. Cosby was also industrious. He worked before and after school, selling produce, shining shoes, and stocking shelves at a supermarket to help support his family.
He was known as the class cutup, more interested in making people laugh than studying. He dropped out of school after failing the tenth grade, but later earned an equivalency degree and was accepted at Temple University.
Beginning in 1961, after a stint in the Navy, he launched his career at clubs in Philadelphia and later New York City, appearing regularly at The Gaslight Cafe.
He got his big break in 1963, when Johnny Carson invited him to appear on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” a major launching pad for up-and-coming comedians. At the same time, America was going through a huge transition. Racial barriers were falling throughout society.
A year later, he released his first comedy album, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! His second album, To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With is considered an all-time comedy classic.
In 1965, America was ready for its first black television actor. Brokaw called television producer Sheldon Leonard and asked him to consider Cosby for the groundbreaking role in “I-Spy,” which also starred Robert Culp.
Through Brokaw’s influence, Cosby was cast in the lead opposite Culp. They played spies caught up in Cold War tensions between the United States and then-Soviet Union.
Even so, four deep South TV stations in Georgia, Florida and Alabama refused to air the show because of Cosby’s character. But that didn’t stop the series from becoming a No. 1 hit in its debut season. Cosby went on to win three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
But he was stung by the racism he encountered. “Let the message be known to bigots and racists that they don’t count!” he declared from the stage after winning his third Emmy.
By then, Cosby was an A-list star, and had already begun taking advantage of women in what would become a familiar MO throughout his career.
Sunni Welles was an aspiring singer in the mid-1960s when Cosby alleged drugged and raped her. She said the first time he attacked her, she was drinking Champagne; after the second time, she never saw him again. She only came forward with her story in 2015.
In 1965, the year Cosby won his first “I Spy” Emmy, Kristina Ruehli was 22, working at Artists Agency Corp., “I Spy” co-star Robert Clup’s agency.
She met Cosby several times. On one occasion, he said he was appearing on a TV show “Hollywood Palace” and invited her to an after-party at his home. She arrived around 10 pm and discovered she was the only guest. She says she passed out after two drinks.
“It was all foggy, and I woke up in the bed,” she told Philadelphia magazine. “I found myself on the bed, and he had his shirt off. He had unzipped his pants. I was just coming to.”
She describes what happened next:
He was attempting to force me into oral sex. He had his hand on my head. He had his cock out, and he had my head pushed close enough to it — I just remember looking at his stomach hair. And the hair on his chest. I had never seen a black man naked before. And it never went past that. I immediately came to and was immediately very sick. I pushed myself away and ran to the bathroom and threw up. I was feeling really ill. And I never got sick like that from alcohol, at least not that small of an amount.”
Like Ruehli, the Cosby victim said she never saw the comedian again. “Not long after that, I resigned and went to work for a law firm, and then I got married. Every time I saw him on TV, I thought this isn’t the good guy that he’s portrayed to be.”
Six other women would eventually come forward with similar stories about Cosby from the 1960s.
In 1969, Cosby landed his own television series, “The Bill Cosby Show.” He starred as a high school gym teacher and bachelor, who was unlucky in love. He also starred that year in the animated “Fat Albert Movie,” based on one of his comedy skits.
Victoria Valentino, a former Playboy bunny, said Cosby drugged and raped her the same year in an apartment in the Hollywood Hills.
Make no mistake, Cosby’s behavior was as wrong then as it is now. But he had powerful friends in male-dominated Hollywood with its own code of silence involving big stars.
Brokaw more than anyone could have nipped Cosby’s sexual deviancy in the bud and possibly prevented his downfall in the twilight of his career. But back then, it just wasn’t done.
Ruehli recalled showing up for work the next day. She told Philadelphia magazine:
“I asked two of my girlfriends in the office why no one came to the house. I more or less got the sort of tip of a head, shake of a shoulder … It was sort of a body language communication, but nothing verbal. Sort of a looking away. Sometimes you know something but don’t want to say anything.”
It was just one of those things that was accepted, and she felt powerless to do anything about it.
“I was quite an attractive young woman with an A-plus figure and natural blonde hair, blue eyes. I was always compared to Barbara Eden in ‘I Dream of Jeannie.’ I was frequently invited to parties. At an agency like that, back in those days, being attractive was one of the reasons you got hired. Like stewardesses.”
Cosby went on to become Cliff Huxtable on the second “Cosby Show.” He was described by The Los Angeles Times as “the avuncular sitcom dad, the stand-up comedian, the tough-love moralist who toured campuses and preached family values.
It would be unthinkable that he was engaged in drugging and sexually assaulting women. But times change, and Cosby’s past finally caught up with him in a Pennsylvania courtroom.
“This final act of his story is the one that is going to completely change how we think about the first and second acts,” Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, told The Times.
At 80, he faces a maximum up to 30 years in jail and $750,000 in fines. Because of his age, he’s unlikely to serve any time in prison.
Ironically, his lasting legacy may be the breakdown of the Hollywood system that also protected him and men like movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose downfall last November in a New York Times expose paved the way for the #MeToo movement.
Cosby’s behavior has now been well documented, but the role of Hollywood’s network of enablers has largely escaped scrutiny. Norman Brokaw epitomized that world.
“There was something definitely up; not kosher, to use the vernacular of the time, at all,” says Salidor.