Does celebrity affect Cosby trial?
screen, reminded everyone of a younger, warmer and more affable figure, a Cliff Huxtable: Sage Dad, not Bill Cosby: Accused Abuser. In one of those images he was even wearing a loud sweater.
Or, more pointedly, the specter of “The Cosby Show’s” Keshia Knight Pulliam, one of several boldfaced names who’ve turned out to support the entertainer, walking him into the courthouse and sitting in the front of the defendant section. The visage of TV’s Rudy, 30 years later but still unmistakably the heartmelting pipsqueak, did perhaps more than anything else both to remind of and subvert Cosby’s celebrity. This is the man who engaged in dozens of aw-so-cute TV reactions, it seemed to say; what do you think of him now? And, indeed, that may either soften our view of him — or, as it did for me and so many others, underscore its contrast to now.
This isn’t just a cultural phenomenon. It could have legal consequences too. The jury has been charged to take into account only the facts of this case, to disregard all they’ve heard or thought about Cosby, including his life in entertainment. But jurors are human, and for many their perception of the defendant will play into how they see the events in dispute here. Will the reminders of how beloved Cosby once was make a jury more likely to believe his account that he did not assault Constand?
Or will it reinforce how far he’s fallen and make it more steadfast in its desire to convict him?
Speaking of the past, it’s not just an entertainer from another era that’s coming to the fore at the Cosby trial — it’s entertainment itself.
Threaded through much of the testimony last week were reminders of Hollywood machinery. Hollywood machinery, that is, as it grinded and lurched 25 years ago.
The testimony of numerous witnesses has provided a window into how the agency and personal-management side of the business functioned in that earlier age. Key to the prosecution’s case is the aforementioned Johnson, who once worked for Cosby’s then-agent, Tom Illius, at what was then the William Morris Agency.
You’re not imagining all the “then’s.” Some of the descriptions of the entry-level world in which the Hollywood assistant toiled remains relevant; anyone in a current agency mailroom would smile at some of the details, like the class system in which “floaters” are at the bottom of even the untouchable rung. And agent bosses could be as tough-minded then as now. Even the defense and Johnson, who can’t agree on much, can agree on one thing: Illius could be a difficult personality. “Tom’s reputation preceded him,” Johnson said, as she described how quickly the late agent cycled through assistants.
But much of what’s recounted here feels decidedly of another era. Cosby set Constand up for a meeting with Lou Weiss, a pater familias of the old WMA who retired in 2007. He also arranged a meeting with Charles Kipps, who helped create “Fatherhood,” the short-lived Nick at Nite animated series, with Cosby circa 2004 and hasn’t been terribly high-profile since. These are not current movers and shakers.
One can only hope that attitudes toward women have changed since the time described. In 1992, when Johnson returned from maternity leave, she told of how she was greeted in the hallway by one of WMA’s star clients. “Hey look, there you are, take a twirl,” Cosby allegedly said to her.
“He had me do a little twirl right there and then said ‘you look good’ and I went back to my desk,” she recounted.
A prosecutor then followed up with: “And there were no female agents standing around watching you twirl?” She said no.
Even then, parts of that way of life were fading, the last tendrils of a more clubby time. The name William Morris itself, tossed around by lawyers and the judge as if it’s a functioning concern, reminds of the frozen-in-amber nature of these events, since WMA merged with Endeavor nearly a decade ago and became an entirely different beast, the Ari Emanuel-led WME Entertainment. It’s hard to imagine the figures from the old WMA even conceiving of the MMAminded agency of today.
This wasn’t a time when international grosses and an army of brand representatives governed decisions but, at least in many quarters, when a handshake and hunches did, when the power wasn’t held as much by Marvel executives and flashy young talents like Jennifer Lawrence as much as by old-time performers like, well, Bill Cosby.
Even some of the poppier celebrities brought up at the trial thrummed with a different feeling.
One stark example: Maxi Priest. What does a forgotten British reggae star have to do with the proceedings? Here’s what: The defense sought to get closer to an innocent verdict by citing, rather abruptly, the 1990s’ celebrity, who apparently had a romantic connection to Johnson. The defense’s attorney, the showman Brian McMonagle, sought to create the impression of the Cosby accuser as an out-ofcontrol partier. At one point McMonagle asked Johnson if she had done drugs with Priest; another time he blurted out that Priest was the father of her son and that they had engaged in a custody battle.
A different world
Clearly it was meant to show that Johnson ran with a fast crowd. But it was unclear what effect this will have on jury members, most of whom appear under 40 and probably have little idea who Priest is in the first place. Certainly that was true for others in the courtroom, like the young millennial reporter seated near me who turned and asked, “Who’s Maxine Priest?”
But of all the bygone names to come up, Illius’ may be the most evocative. The agent had a roster of clients that reads like a VH-1 retrospective. In fact, Cosby is among the last in the stable still alive or at least, in some way, in the public eye, from a list that at one time included Tony Orlando, Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds and Charo.
Whatever one thinks of Cosby, his trial is a reminder that Hollywood eras don’t last forever. And that includes the current one.
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BILL COSBY is escorted by his wife, Camille Cosby, as he arrives for his sexual assault trial ,being held at a suburban Philadelphia courthouse in Norristown, Pa.