I was sitting on an uncomfortable couch in the dressing room at Oprah; or maybe it was just me who was uncomfortable, after all I was about to meet one of the most recognizable human beings on the planet—Bill Cosby. I was his literary publicist. It was my job to accompany him to a few media appearances and book signings to promote his book, Come On People. It is hard to describe how surreal it is to be a kid from Saginaw, Michigan in Chicago at the Oprah Show acting as a representative for entertainment royalty. So far I had only heard Bill Cosby’s voice on the other end of a conference call. Now I’m sitting in his dressing room.
The bathroom door swung open and he appeared to the sounds of instant laughter. He was wearing a light blue dress shirt, a dark blue patterned tie, a sharp navy blazer and his boxer shorts. I stood up, unsure of where to look. Wisely I chose his eyes. I reached out my hand and said something typical like, “So great to finally meet you Mr. Cosby.” A few minutes later, now fully clothed in neatly pressed grey slacks, he sat down next to me and started talking about the book. My bizarre day got more bizarre as Oprah entered the room. The two shared a long friendly embrace and again plenty of laughs. I remember trying to calculate how much money was standing directly in front of me.
I spent the next couple of weeks off and on with Bill in different places—a book store in Harlem, the Museum of African American History in Boston and other places. I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be a megastar; to be someone everyone wants a piece of. I saw how people catered to his every need. His mood – although generally good – could shift as violently as the boom of a sailboat after coming about; duck or you could get hurt. More often than not, he was the lovable Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. One time he insisted on walking a couple of blocks from one appearance to another. He was annoyed that I called for his car, but I didn’t know you could just take a stroll outside with Bill Cosby, and that’s exactly what we did. Just the two of us walked down the cobblestone streets of Boston and every head turned, cameras came out, people shouted from their cars, Hey Bill! Over here! Bill Cosby! He seemed to revel in it. A pretty young woman was walking toward us talking on her cell. He stood in her path and grabbed the phone from her. “Who is this?” He asked the unsuspecting person on the other end. It was the woman’s mother. “This is Bill Cosby. Your daughter is doing great. Quit nagging her. She’s fine!” The small crowd that had instantly gathered shared a good laugh. The woman walked away in a state of shock.
Then there were the not-so-great moments—times he seemed more like an ornery old man than a beloved star. He insisted that only one man—an old friend of his—could drive him to appearances. I could not know the man’s name. He was to be paid in cash only, no checks and no tax forms. When Bill arrived somewhere I was to approach “Mr. B’s” driver side window and hand him an envelope with cash. It was strange. His longtime publicist made it clear what was allowed and what was not when it comes to Bill. He drew lines in the sand and you didn’t cross them. Bill held onto grudges—media outlets, on-air personalities, people who he felt had wronged him in some way. You didn’t question it. It was understood. You just don’t go there. He’s Bill Cosby. Some of that stemmed from the murder of his son Ennis who was shot to death in 1997 as he changed a tire along a California freeway. Bill was not at all happy with the press coverage of this tragedy. His publicist told me he was never quite the same after Ennis’ death. He distrusted many people, especially the press.
I have been asked a lot lately, “Do you think he did it?” Cosby has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by several dozen women, many of whom claim the comedian drugged and raped them in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Is it possible? Could it be that the image as a gentle, sweater-clad dad is just that—image? The answer is maybe and it wouldn’t surprise me. I saw enough things not written here to give me reasonable doubt. I wish I could tell you he’s incapable of such monstrous acts. I cannot.
I do know this: We create these celebrities. We stop telling them the word “no” very early on. They forget what the word means. Time after time I have seen people stand in awe over another human being. They want an autograph, a touch, or just a glance their way. I’m guilty too. You don’t think I loved telling people who I was with that day in Chicago? You don’t think I was floored when Bill Cosby borrowed my cell and made dinner reservations for me and my coworker at his favorite New York restaurant? It’s easy to forget that these are just people. We don’t know them. We feel like we do. We don’t.
When the Cosby story broke I overheard someone say, “There are no heroes anymore.” Not true. We just look in the wrong places.