In Cosby Extortion Case, Putting A Price On One's Good Name

Posted: July 20, 1997

As if preparing to give one of his comic monologues, Bill Cosby pulled the microphone close, adjusted its height, and thumped it a couple of times to make sure it was on.

But the story the entertainer recounted in front of a crowd stuffed into a New York City federal courtroom last week was anything but humorous. And it was hardly the kind of tale audiences have come to expect from a man who has earned millions tweaking family life while promoting moral behavior.

In telling how he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over 20 years to keep quiet allegations that he fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter, Cosby showed how far a celebrity will go to safeguard that most valuable commodity: his image.

The Cosby image was cultivated in comic monologues about his children; in best-selling books such as Fatherhood; in commercials that showed him clowning with youngsters; and in a hit TV series that portrayed him as a sometimes exasperated but ultimately wise head of the house. He was Everydad.

Last week the actor who is paid $1 million per episode to star in the CBS sitcom Cosby was in court, testifying at the extortion trial of Autumn Jackson, 22, who is charged with demanding $40 million not to tell the world that she is his daughter. The trial continues tomorrow in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Defense attorneys will attempt this week to convince a jury of seven men and five women that Jackson and her codefendants, Jose Medina and Boris Saba, were not blackmailing Cosby but instead negotiating a financial settlement that she considered her birthright.

The defense has been careful to speak of Cosby with respect, to avoid jury backlash. Cosby was not grilled during cross-examination, but questioned almost deferentially by lawyers who know how popular he is, and how much public sympathy flowed to him after the highway killing of his only son, Ennis, in January.

He was not always a beloved international figure, but in 1974, when he met Jackson's mother, he was already a role model with an image to guard. He was 37, married and the father of four, when he first saw Shawn Thompson, a fashion model, in a Los Angeles hotel. He danced with her and asked for her number, he testified. He initiated a liaison. He flew her to Las Vegas, where he made a fortune doing stand-up comedy in casinos on the Strip. They had sex.

He called the model again, he testified, more than a year later, and invited her to join him again in Las Vegas. In the living room of the 30th-floor suite Cosby reserved, Thompson pulled out a picture of her child and said the girl was his. He insisted it couldn't be, he told the court. He ended the affair.

By this time, Cosby had made history as the first African American to star in a television series, I Spy. He had won three Emmys playing a government agent in the espionage-adventure show, which ran from 1965 to 1968.

His good-guy reputation carried over to his nightclub act, where he avoided vulgarity and innuendo. His acclaimed cartoon series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which was based on his experiences growing up poor in Philadelphia and ran on CBS from 1972 to 1977, was a vehicle for teaching children about morals and how to behave in life, Cosby told the jury.

He was far from a megastar back then. After I Spy, there were some flops: The Bill Cosby Show lasted only two seasons; The New Bill Cosby Show just one. In 1976 Cos, a variety show for children, was canceled after only two months.

Still, the Cosby name was worth something in the mid-1970s, as he began to win contracts with large corporations - Coca-Cola, Texas Instruments and Ford Motors among them - to pitch their products. In 1978, Advertising Age voted Cosby star presenter of the year.

How would it look, indeed, for a man who was hawking Jell-O Pudding to children to be publicly branded as a cheating husband with an out-of-wedlock daughter?

So, when Thompson started asking for money, Cosby testified, he paid - carefully, with cashier's checks in someone else's name. He didn't want to leave a trail of evidence. He kept paying after he told his wife, Camille, about the affair in 1979. He was still paying when The Cosby Show hit the air in 1984.

The series, which he helped to create, ran until 1992 and solidified Cosby's image as the nation's ideal dad. Considered to be the most popular series of the 1980s, it portrayed the perfect fantasy family: The Huxtables were happy, prosperous, attractive and tight-knit. Mom was a lawyer, and dad, played by Cosby, was an obstetrician. Cosby said in court that he based many of the plots on his experiences with the Cosbys' children, who by then numbered five.

In 1991, when Autumn Jackson was 17, Cosby met her for the first time and brought her to the set of The Cosby Show. All her life, her lawyer Robert Baum says, she had been told by her mother that she was Cosby's daughter, even though another man's name is on her birth certificate.

Cosby put a photograph of Jackson on the set of his show and told her to look for it when she watched him on TV. Following the visit, they spoke on the phone regularly. But when she called and left a message from ``Autumn Cosby,'' he drew the line. ``I will be for you a father figure, but I am not your father,'' he told her.

Is he? Cosby's attorney told the FBI that it is possible, the lawyer testified last week. Would the entertainer have been in the courtroom at all had he consented to a paternity test years ago? Cosby said in court that he once canceled such a test because he feared someone would alert the media. He did not want to risk his image.

In any case, U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones has ruled that this is a case about extortion, not paternity.

The defense is still expected to argue this week that Jackson is convinced she is Cosby's daughter, was accustomed to receiving money from him, and believed she was entitled to more.

The image that Bill Cosby nurtured for decades was certainly on Autumn Jackson's mind in January. Shortly after she demanded money from Cosby's law firm that month, FBI agents searched her Burbank, Calif., hotel room.

They found a letter addressed to President Clinton, California Gov. Pete Wilson, Jesse Jackson and others. The letter described a daughter left ``cold, penniless and homeless'' by ``the world's most famous father.''

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