Bill Cosby built an entertainment empire by playing a helpful, wholesome, fatherly figure in everything from his landmark “Cosby Show” on NBC to the animated “Fat Albert” series to memorable commercials for Jell-O Pudding Pops.
But industry insiders say there is little chance that the disgraced 83-year-old entertainer may be able to chart a comeback, now that he has won release on a technicality from a prison term after being convicted in 2018 on three counts of aggravated assault against former Temple University employee Andrea Constand. That trial came amid a cascade of allegations that Cosby committed sexual assaults on more than 60 women.
“There’s no ‘Cosby’ reunion. There will be no Vegas residency and there will be no new Jell-O endorsement for Mr. Cosby,” said Howard Bragman, longtime PR strategist and crisis manager. “He was not found innocent. He was released on a technicality. I would say the world still believes him to be guilty for the heinous crimes he was charged with and he’s going to live a very O.J. Simpson-like existence for the rest of his life.”
Many legal and entertainment observers were stunned Wednesday when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Cosby’s conviction on indecent assault, based on a non-prosecution agreement the once-popular actor had struck with a prior state prosecutor. Under the ruling, Cosby cannot be tried again in the case in the state.
Bragman, who represents one of Cosby’s victims, was among those shocked by the news, explaining that he wouldn’t have been as surprised if Cosby’s release had come shortly after he’d been sentenced to 10 years in jail.
“There’s a sadness to it,” Bragman said, when describing the conversation he had with his client after learning the decision.
Talent agencies, TV networks and movie studios are not likely to be eager to align with him because the crime for which he was tried and convicted is so at odds with the image he once portrayed.
“My sense is that redemption is very, very far away, and it would be difficult for him to re-enter the spotlight that shone so brightly during his heyday, when he was America’s dad,” said Jason Squire, an associate professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts who is editor of “The Movie Business Book.” “Traditionally, Hollywood is very forgiving, but there’s a limit.”
One branch of the media industry appears eager to talk with Cosby: the news media. CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan managed to secure an off-camera interview with the actor in his home following his release.
As for an on-camera interview, however, Bragman expects many news organizations would be hesitant to give Cosby a platform lest they incur backlash from their viewers or protest from the staff internally.
“If he had been truly innocent, it’d be different. But you’ve gotten off on a technicality, and now you’re boastful about it. I don’t think that’s gonna play too well,” Bragman explained.
There are other avenues Cosby might pursue, such as a stand-up tour or speaking at smaller theaters. That is a path that other controversial figures have managed to tread, including Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News Channel primetime anchor. He launched a speaking tour with comedian Dennis Miller in the wake of his ouster from the Fox Corp. property in 2017 after his show was canceled due to heavy scrutiny following reports of the anchor harassing women.
Cosby could also launch his own direct-to-consumer property, via a podcast or Substack newsletter. Most insiders believe that major studios would be loathe to employ Cosby because of the backlash that it would prompt from viewers and audiences, not to mention their executives and the actors, show runners, directors and other top talent who work on their behalf. They believe that if Cosby still wants to have any kind of public-facing career, his only option would be to operate on the fringes of the industry.
In a sign of how radioactive Cosby remains, stars and entertainers such as Debra Messing, Padma Lakshmi, Diane Warren and Christina Lahiti took to social media after the comedian’s conviction was overturned to call it a miscarriage of justice. One of the lone voices of support for the performer, former “The Cosby Show” co-star Phylicia Rashad, was roundly criticized after she tweeted that a “terrible wrong is being righted.” She subsequently tried to walk that back, issuing a statement saying she supports survivors of sexual assault coming forward.
How much the Cosby name is worth is difficult to assess. He may have no current projects, but he no doubt enjoys residuals and other income from past work, including movies, TV programs and commercials — though such cash flows may have diminished over the past few years. When the scandal surrounding Cosby intensified, “The Cosby Show,” which was heavily syndicated, was taken off the air by networks such as TV Land and BET.
While the classic series may once have been fodder for Hollywood’s new phalanx of streaming properties, the politics of making that series, or other Cosby-related shows like “I Spy” available are fraught. However, movies in which Cosby appeared — his films include everything from 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night,” a popular hit, to 1990’s critically-derided “Ghost Dad” — could continue to be available as streaming services confront how to deal with problematic content.
Other figures whose careers hit legal issues or who were accused of misconduct have managed to return to the entertainment industry. For instance, former Pixar guru John Lasseter reemerged as the head of Skydance Animation after being pushed out of his old perch amidst allegations of workplace sexual misconduct. But his offenses pale in comparison to the allegations against Cosby. Moreover, Cosby is free on a legal technicality, not because new evidence emerged that puts his guilt into question. Kevin Spacey may be trying to make a comeback in the wake of assault allegations, but the one role he landed is a cameo in a European art film, a far cry from the studio movies where he made a name for himself.
Of course, the octogenarian comedian may not have much desire to work. “It is hard to fathom that Cosby would be interested in parading himself back into the entertainment industry,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “Even his biggest fans would rather remember him as the clever comedian of yesteryear. His detractors would hound him at every turn and with good reason. His market value is now zilch and no producer or promoter would want to support him. It is impossible to be a funny man after such corruption of his public image.”
Simply put, many in Hollywood circles don’t think Cosby will work again for a mainstream entertainment company.
“No one is going to work with him. No studio. No A-list actor or filmmaker,” said one talent agent. “It would kill your reputation. Not to mention that you’d have to justify it to your friends and family. How could you do that? He is toxic.”