I was surprised by a phone call at 5 a.m. from our New York office one morning in 1997. There were reports on the wire services of the death of a young man with the last name of Cosby, and my editors wanted me to find out if he might be related to Bill. I dialed actress-director Debbie Allen. Debbie was a longtime Cosby friend and associate, and of course her sister, Phylicia Rashad, had starred as his wife in both of his family-comedy hits. "Yes, it was him," Allen said in a low voice. My stomach dropped. To complicate matters, I'd made arrangements with Cosby's publicist to visit him on the set of "Cosby" the following week in New York. I assumed everything would be canceled because of the family tragedy, so imagine my surprise when I was told to make the trip. Cosby would be returning to work the very next week.
Grief is a very individual thing, and Cosby seemed not to want to grieve alone. In speaking with Cosby's personal assistant before leaving Los Angeles, I was told to be at the studio a few hours before the taping. The assistant greeted me in the lobby and led me to Cosby's dressing room. He was sitting in a La-Z-Boy-type chair, smoking a cigar with his feet propped up. His face still bore the overly amusing character he used so often in his commercials and television shows. But the familiar smile did little to mask the subtle, faraway glare in his eyes.
Directly above his head hung a colorful quilt with the words hello friend stitched into it--the phrasing Ennis used whenever he greeted someone. I froze for a moment. I was standing in Bill Cosby's dressing room praying that I not ask clumsy questions about his son. We talked for nearly 30 minutes as he took long puffs on his Cuban cigar. I had no intention of asking about Ennis, even though I knew my editors would hit the ceiling if I didn't. Fortunately, Cosby read my reservations. "I know you want to ask about my son, and I want to tell you about him." I looked down at my notebook as he spoke, not wanting to meet the water welling in his eyes. "Whoever took his life is riding with the Devil now. They don't know what they did or what type of person they killed. He was a wonderful kid with a lot of love in his heart. That's who they took from us." I turned the tape off as he stopped speaking, and we both sat in silence. Within minutes, show runners came in to give the comic script changes. As Cosby began to leave, he turned to invite me to dinner after the show.
After the two-hour taping, I returned to his dressing room to find it transformed into an elegant dining room set up for 10 people. His daughter and her boyfriend, Phylicia Rashad and her then husband, Ahmad Rashad, and the jazz legend Max Roach were all seated. It was truly a scene from Cosby's TV show, with the conversation flowing easily from politics to music to sports while the soothing sounds of Miles Davis's horn lingered in the background. Soul food made by Cosby's personal chefs filled the china plates, and Cosby kept the night lively with jokes. The mood that night was as peaceful as a Sunday dinner after church.
In 2003, Cosby was set to release a humor book on eating habits and cleaning up his own health. His publicist phoned with the idea for a story. I flew to New York and arrived at a massive brownstone. An employee welcomed me into the foyer, which rivaled anything I'd ever seen in a magazine or on television. A long, winding stairway was to the left of the room, and standing in the middle, on the marble floor, was a beautifully handcrafted mahogany bust of Ennis. Just beyond the foyer was the great room, and sitting on the couch, with bright red pajamas on, was Cosby himself.
He laughed when he saw me and motioned for me to join him in the room. We talked about foods he could no longer eat and things his mother had taught him when her health started to fail. During the interview, the phone rang off and on, and Cosby would excuse himself for brief periods. Then one call came that he clearly was looking forward to. A college friend of Ennis's was on the line, telling the comic that he'd been accepted to medical school. Cosby's eyes danced as he held the phone to his ear, and then he put the phone down, darted into the foyer and stood directly in front of the bust of his dead son. "Ennis, Michael passed on his very first try. Isn't that something? That's a Morehouse man for you. Nothing can stop you." Then he placed a kiss on the bronze forehead.