Does celebrity af­fect Cosby trial?

Los Angeles Times - - CAL­EN­DAR -

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?

Ugly Hol­ly­wood

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.

steve.zeitchik@la­times.com Twit­ter: @ZeitchikLAT

Matt Rourke Associated Press

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.

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