In midst of storm, Bill Cosby to appear on Florida stage Friday

Entertainer Bill Cosby in a recent interview.
Entertainer Bill Cosby in a recent interview. AP

Bill Cosby, his status as an American icon shattered and his five-decade show business career crumbling from a tsunami of rape accusations, is charging head-first into the storm, vowing to go on with a stand-up appearance Friday night in Florida.

“The performance is scheduled to take place as planned Friday night,” said John Glisch, associate vice president for communications at Melbourne’s Eastern Florida State College, whose 2,016-seat King Center for the Performing Arts is hosting the show.

“We don't have any specific information on planned protests but will have additional security both outside and inside the theater.”

The Melbourne performance, if it indeed takes place, will stand almost alone amidst a cascade of cancellations of other Cosby projects in the past few days. NBC has abandoned plans for a new TV show, Netflix has dropped a Thanksgiving special and the cable channel TV Land has even booted its reruns of the comedian’s monstrously popular 1980s hit sitcom, The Cosby Show. Two Cosby appearances on TV talk shows have been canceled. But his management company said Thursday that Cosby has no plans to cancel his Melbourne appearance.

The 77-year-old Cosby, once among the most beloved cultural figures in America, has been under siege for the past month after the revival of decade-old charges that he drugged and raped young women. A lawsuit by one of the women — who said in court documents she had 13 other, unnamed victims willing to testify — was settled out of court in 2006.

But in the past few weeks, at least five women, some of them from the ranks of the lawsuit witnesses, some not, have come forward to say publicly they were sexually assaulted by Cosby.

The latest two surfaced Thursday: Boca Raton nurse Therese Serignese, who said Cosby raped her when she was a teenage fan in Las Vegas 38 years ago, and Carla Ferrigno (wife of The Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno), who said she had to flee Cosby’s home after he grabbed her roughly and kissed her during a late-night game of pool in 1967.

“Over the course of 38 years, I have heard these stories about what a great guy he is,” Serignese told the Huffington Post website. “He certainly is funny. But he also predatorily abuses women.”

The allegations have reverberated into a sociopolitical earthquake, reviving longstanding controversies about the way rape cases — particularly those in which the accused man is wealthy or powerful — are investigated and prosecuted, as well as divisions in the black community over Cosby’s often-strident criticisms of black culture.

And, coming on the heels of a series of other show-business scandals over the sexual exploitation of young performers — one in London, where famous BBC personalities have been accused of violating hundreds of kids, another in Hollywood where the forthcoming documentary An Open Secret accuses a group of film producers of passing child stars around like sexual party favors — the accusations have raised questions about an undercurrent of sexual predation in the entertainment industry.

Most of the women who have come forward against Cosby did not contact police at the time because, they said, they had little or nothing to corroborate charges against a popular, wealthy entertainer. And in some cases, there are elements of their stories that a defense attorney would fiercely attack. (Serignese said she not only returned to see Cosby at the hotel where he raped her but stayed several weeks in a room there at his expense, repeatedly taking drugs he offered that knocked her out to be raped yet again.)

But a Pennsylvania prosecutor who interrogated Andrea Costand, the young Philadelphia college staffer who sued Cosby, said he was convinced her story was truthful, even though he decided not to file charges against the entertainer.

“I didn’t say that he didn’t commit the crime,” Bruce Castor told a Philadelphia TV station. “What I said was there was insufficient admissible and reliable evidence upon which to base a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s ‘prosecutor-speak’ for ‘I think he did it but there’s just not enough here to prosecute.’”

Costand’s lawsuit was covered by People magazine and other high-profile media at the time, but there seemed to be little public appetite for a scandal centered around Cosby. Why that has changed a decade later, so suddenly and so dramatically, is a mystery even to the media covering it.

“That’s a phenomenal question,” said Kelley Carter, entertainment editor of the website BuzzFeed. “I’ve been scratching my head. Every five minutes there seems to be a new update of a new accusation against Bill Cosby.”

Some media figures trace the new interest to a routine by Philadelphia comedian Hannibal Buress, who mocks Cosby’s frequent lectures to young black men that they need to quit wearing droopy pants and speaking in a street patois that mainstream (and, implicitly, white) America finds impenetrable.

“Bill Cosby has the [bleepin’] smuggest old black man persona that I hate,” jibes Buress, who is black. “He gets on TV: ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the 80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”

Buress had been doing the routine for several months, and someone recorded it and posted it on YouTube last month, where it quickly went viral. His scathing dismissal of Cosby resonated with a big chunk of the black community, said Carter, 38, who was entertainment editor at Ebony magazine before joining BuzzFeed.

“I think there’s this kind of built-in internal conflict when it comes to Bill Cosby,” she said. “A lot of us are trying, when he talks critically about hip-hop culture, to differentiate between Bill Cosby and [his much-admired sitcom character] Cliff Huxtable. You’d be very hard-pressed to find somebody in the black community who didn’t grow up with the Huxtable family.

“But we also grew up with hip-hop. And it’s very frustrating that this man we grew up with, this man who was almost like a bonus father to us, doesn’t understand the hip-hop community.”

In red-state-blue-state America, that reaction has produced a counter-reaction. “There’s a little polarization around this,” said Howard Kurtz, host of Fox News’ MediaBuzz Sunday show. “Some liberals who never much liked Cosby’s outspokenness on black family dysfunction have been leading the charge against him, while I sense more skepticism in the conservative community over allegations that, after all, have never led to criminal charges.”

Kurtz believes the controversy has fatally wounded Cosby’s career: “The damage is done. Major media organizations are now treating him as if he was radioactive.” But New York public-relations honcho Marvet Britto, whose Britto Agency specializes in celebrity damage control, thinks the comedian will be back.

“I don’t believe his career is over, and I don’t believe he won’t be able to find media partners to work with,” she said. “We’re a forgiving people. Our connective tissue is based around redemption. We all know we’re all one mistake away from being in a similar position. We all have that imperfect gene.”

Miami Herald staff writer Audra D.S. Burch contributed to this report.