Cosby has family, friends worried

Some have noticed peculiar behavior since his son's death

July 05, 2002|By William Bunch | William Bunch,KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Something wasn't quite right with Bill Cosby.

It happened just over a month ago, during his first five minutes on a concert stage in Austin, Texas. The audience fidgeted nervously as Cosby awkwardly stumbled over his attempted punch lines.

A critic for the Austin American Statesman wrote that Cosby "took his seat at center stage, and for the first five minutes struggled and sputtered." He said the comedian "talked, backtracked, stuttered. It was an odd moment ..."

Still, it wasn't quite as odd as the revelation in the Philadelphia Daily News that Cosby allegedly had accused a longtime friend of witchcraft before he evicted her as overseer of his estate in Elkins Park, Pa., where she's lived for 19 years.

Cosby's strange behavior, in which he and a spiritual adviser, billed as a "lama," accused Gladys Rodgers of using blood and "sparkles" in witchcraft rituals, was the talk of radio and tabloid TV on Monday. The sparkles are bits of mica, a shiny material in the soil in this area.

But some family members and friends have been increasingly worried about the comedian's behavior since his only son, Ennis, was murdered in a freeway robbery in Los Angeles in 1997.

Thornhill Cosby, the entertainer's uncle who once headed the Philadelphia NAACP, said Cosby has been increasingly distant from his relatives here since then.

"I don't know whether the Ennis thing has turned him around - I don't know what's happened to him," Thornhill Cosby said. "We've lost contact with him."

The Philadelphia-born Cosby, still an icon of American comedy, will turn 65 this month. He shows no interest in retirement as he jets across the country for speeches, charitable gigs and occasional concerts. It would be easy to blame some of his recent stumbles on exhaustion and advancing age.

And life has never been as easy as the sweater-clad "national dad" of the Cosby Show made it look at times. He shattered racial barriers in the 1960s by appearing on TV's I Spy and ruled the airwaves during the 1980s as Cliff Huxtable. But Cosby faltered during the 1970s, when he had trouble finding roles and later admitted he had been unfaithful to his longtime wife, Camille.

But it's becoming painfully clear that the past five years have been the most difficult of Cosby's storybook career.

In January 1997, 27-year-old Ennis Cosby was shot and killed on the side of a freeway when he stopped his Mercedes-Benz to change a tire. A Ukrainian immigrant, who later admitted that the young Cosby was "a target of opportunity" for a robbery, is serving a life sentence without parole in California.

"He was my hero," a tearful Bill Cosby said immediately after his son's murder. His only son - Cosby has four daughters - had struggled in school with dyslexia and poor grades to become a doctoral student with plans to teach inner-city children.

"That was the greatest tragedy that ever happened to him," Cosby's Uncle Thornhill said.

Some were surprised at how quickly Cosby went back to the stage and to his show on CBS, Cosby, after the murder. But performing was clearly a way for him to cope.

"I think it's time for me to tell the people that we've got to laugh," he said.

But more grief was coming for Cosby - in the form of a fax that arrived the same day his son was killed. His marital woes of the 1970s came back to haunt him when a woman named Autumn Jackson said she would tell the world that she was Cosby's love child unless he paid her $40 million.

Cosby denied paternity but admitted that an affair had occurred with her mother 26 years earlier, when he was already married, and that he'd paid $100,000 over the years both to support Jackson and to keep her mom from telling tales about their illicit relationship.

In the end, Jackson was sentenced to 26 months behind bars for extortion.

Cosby's friend Madeline Kahn, who was a regular on the CBS show, died of ovarian cancer shortly before Cosby went off the air due to sagging ratings.

That summer, Cosby made what seemed like a bizarre career move after the Autumn Jackson incident. He signed a deal with the cable channel TNT to produce and star in a TV movie about an aging jazz musician who discovers that he has a 29-year-old love child.

But after some groans, the project was "put on hold indefinitely."

Gladys Rodgers, the ex-wife of Philadelphia basketball legend Guy Rodgers, has told the Daily News she started seeing changes in Cosby around the time Ennis died.

Rodgers said that was when an Englishman named David Kirby, Cosby's spiritual adviser, became part of the comedian's inner circle. She said Kirby had used fire, dice, seeds and beads to do "readings."

She said it was Kirby who eventually accused her of witchcraft and asked her to leave the Cosby mansion last month after an investigation that included "a ritual of fire," rolling dice, and analyzing floor sweepings.

It's hard to know what to make of the accusations. Cosby's longtime spokesman, David Brokow, had no comment for this story.

Cosby has certainly been keeping a full schedule - in April, he showed up at an award ceremony at West Philadelphia High School to fill in for a friend who couldn't make it. And some buddies say they've seen little change.

"As far as I know, he's the same old Bill," said Gavin White, a close friend and a former coach at Temple, which Cosby attended. White did concede that most of their recent contact has been by phone.

And after his verbal stumbling in Austin, Cosby regained his footing and made the crowd laugh, mostly at the expense of himself and his advancing age. "For sex at 65, I need two days' warning," he said to guffaws.

Then Cosby left the stage and did one more thing that surprised his audience. Despite ringing applause, America's top showman of the last 40 years would not come back out for an encore.

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