For more than two decades, Bill Cosby has shared his family with the world. From his books and comic routines on the humorous travails of parenthood to the wildly successful “Cosby Show,” the source of his kind, congenial and honest brand of entertainment was his own family. So when his only son, Ennis, was tragically gunned down on a Los Angeles freeway last week, our hearts went out to his family in an uncommon way. After all, this was not just another news story — this was someone we knew.
We met Ennis Cosby when he was still in diapers, the subject of many of his father’s famous routines. Through his TV alter-ego, Theo Huxtable, we watched him mature from adolescence to manhood. While it’s wrong to confuse fact with fiction, Theo was based so much on Ennis that it’s hard not to blur the line. Bill Cosby worked with his son weekly to draft “Cosby Show” story lines from Ennis’s ups and downs. And Ennis took pride in the fact that his personal triumphs and problems — particularly his overcoming dyslexia — where chronicled on his dad’s show. “Ennis thought the shows that portrayed his struggle with growing up were great because it showed others what so many people go through,” a college classmate told Newsweek. And because we knew so much of his life, his death was like that of an old friend.
We may be accustomed to having intimate knowledge of celebrity lives, but it’s most often of the scandalous variety. Privy to messy infidelities, drug overdoses and general debauchery via a tabloid press and “Entertainment Tonight”-style news judgment, we’ve grown jaded not only to the news, but to society at large. No matter how media-savvy we may be, on some level we see the antics of Dennis Rodman, Kelsey Grammer or Robert Downey, Jr. as a reflection of a culture in decline, if not of ourselves.
Part of what makes Bill Cosby so revered is the fact that he represents a kind of decency increasingly rare in popular culture. His family, in life and on television, is not without its faults. Although the problems of his TV family may be resolved faster than those in real life, Cosby’s forthright, respectful manner of confronting them has always been at the core of his appeal.
When, in 1989, his daughter was battling a drug and alcohol addiction, Cosby gave a simple, direct interview to The National Enquirer to put any rumors to rest. His frank engagement of a serious issue, even through a publication which made its name in sensationalism, showed us how a decent human being acts.When we react with genuine sorrow to the loss of Cosby’s son, when we feel disgust at the gory crime scene footage on CNN or the vulturous mob of cameras at his front door, we realize that we are decent too. Plainly, we react as we should. The fact we can, in grief, transcend what our culture tells us we are — callous and scandal-hungry — is a testament to the integrity of Bill Cosby, and to the example of Ennis Cosby. That it takes the death of someone we feel we know to momentarily jerk us out of a collective mind-set is terribly sad, but perhaps when the next sensational report comes along, we’ll remember that there’s a real-life family affected by that too.