TESTIFYING IN A MANHATTAN FEDERAL court on July 15, Bill Cosby could remember having only one meeting with Autumn Jackson, the 22-year-old woman who claims to be his illegitimate daughter. That was in the fall of 1991, during the run of his hugely successful NBC series The Cosby Show. At his invitation, Jackson, then 17, spent the day at a taping of the show in Queens, N.Y. When she handed him a snapshot of herself, Cosby—who recalled later telling Jackson, "I'm not your father, but I will be for you a father figure"—promised to add it to the other pictures scattered around the homey set. Cosby, 60, testified that he said, " 'I am going to put this picture on my set.... And when the show is going on, you will see this picture of you, and this will inspire you to go on and become somebody.'... And she smiled and she said, 'Yes.' "

If life were a sitcom, a dewy-eyed Jackson would have taken this bit of boilerplate to heart—and herself to the nearest medical or law school. But Jackson's sense of self-importance turned out to be far more grandiose than Cosby's scenario, and no less unrealistic. On Jan. 16, in a phone call with Cosby's attorney, Jackson demanded $40 million from the entertainer and threatened to tell the Globe tabloid that he was more father than figure.

While it's up to a jury to decide if Jackson's intention was criminal—if convicted of extortion, she and two codefendants face up to 12 years in prison and a $750,000 fine—her timing certainly was. On the same day Cosby attorney Jack Schmitt was dealing with Jackson, the entertainer was receiving the tragic news of the murder of his only son, Ennis, 27. Realizing that her tale was hotter in the wake of Ennis's death, say prosecutors, Jackson doubled her fee for the Globe interview to $50,000. (In the course of bargaining with Schmitt, however, she eventually lowered her asking price from Cosby to a mere $24 million.)

For his part, Cosby has flatly denied paternity. Jackson was not, to be sure, one of the five children he referred to in Fatherhood, the 1986 bestseller in which he mused wryly but wisely about raising a family with Camille, his wife of 33 years. Yet, eight days after Jackson's Jan. 18 arrest, during an interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather, Cosby confessed to a 1973 "rendezvous" with Jackson's mother, Shawn Upshaw, now 44, a twice-married ex-model with three other children. Cosby also admitted to Rather that there was a "possibility" that Jackson was his daughter. This disquieting display of backpedaling instilled doubts in even the most empathetic observers. Cosby's waffling, wrote columnist Bob Herbert in The New York Times, was "enough to convince most of us that words like 'unequivocally' and 'absolutely' probably should not be attached to his denials." Another writer called for Cosby to submit to a DNA test, concluding that "America has lost its patience with absentee fathers."

Whether Cosby is or isn't Jackson's father was ruled irrelevant in her trial (extortion is illegal, whether by a stranger, illegitimate child or favorite aunt). But, in the course of his half day on the stand, Cosby made it clear that the specter of paternity has haunted him ever since Upshaw, during a Las Vegas tête-à-tête in the 70s, showed him a baby picture and announced, "This is your daughter." Cosby, who testified to having sex with Upshaw only once in their 1973 fling (she says it was four times), told her the child wasn't his. Upshaw's ex-boyfriend Jerald Jackson, a Rialto, Calif., truck driver whose name is on Autumn's birth certificate, agrees. "I know I'm the biological father," he told PEOPLE. "Autumn looks exactly like her grandmother. It ticks me off when I'm called the alleged father. Alleged nothing." He adds, "My daughter didn't know what she was doing. You don't try to go and blackmail a guy for $40 million. That's a kid."

As he conceded during cross examination by Jackson's attorney, Robert Baum, Cosby had, in fact, once asked Upshaw and Jackson to go with him for a paternity test to settle the question but wound up canceling out of fear news of the test would leak to the press. Over the years, he paid Upshaw well over $100,000—including the tab for two drug rehab stints—because, he said, "she could...go public with the fact that I had had sex with her."

While Upshaw says the physical resemblance between her daughter and the famous entertainer is apparent—"Just look at her," she told PEOPLE, "the mouth, the cheekbones, the chin, the squinty eyes"—Autumn has turned out to be the spitting image of her demanding mother as far as Cosby is concerned. Although he testified that his contact with Jackson didn't extend much beyond 15 "rah, rah, sis, boom bah ...get-yourself-an-education" phone calls over the years,' in 1994 he opened a special trust for her, paying out $25,000 for everything from cosmetics to cable. The sole proviso was that Jackson, then a student at Tallahassee Community College in Florida (for which he also footed the bill), keep studying. Despite such largesse, Cosby invariably stressed that he was not her father, a statement, he said, "she didn't challenge."

It wasn't until the spring of '95, in fact, when Jackson dropped out of school and lost her trust fund, that she began speaking up. Moving in with her mother in Valencia, Calif., she was soon joined by a boyfriend from Florida, Antonay Williams, 26. Eight months later, after Williams had steadfastly refused to find work, Upshaw threw him out, and her daughter followed. Penniless and homeless, Jackson began bombarding Cosby, his staff and colleagues with pleas for money—accompanied by threats to go public with her story. In a note to Schmitt, Jackson wrote, "I need money, and I don't want to do anything to harm my father in any way, if at all possible." As if in warning, she included a copy of her unsigned contract with the Globe.

As Jackson's supporters see it, these weren't the machinations of a blackmailer but the unheeded cries of a daughter in need of paternal succor. "She wouldn't hurt anybody," says her mom. "She was just trying to get what was rightfully hers." To Jackson, that meant at least enough money to purchase a $1.25 million, 34-acre property north of L.A. On Jan. 17 she phoned the owner and said she was ready to buy. The next day she was arrested.

But even before the Jackson saga reached its peculiar climax, Cosby was fed up. In court he recalled a phone conversation earlier that month: "I said to her, 'I'm tired of you, I'm tired of your mother. You and your mother have never given me a happy moment for what I have given.' " The trial won't either, no matter what the verdict. With the question of Jackson's true paternity unanswered, Cosby will remain immersed in the very scandal he had contrived so long to avoid.

TOM GLIATTO
MARIA EFTIMIADES and SUE MILLER in New York City and IRENE ZUTELL in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Maria Eftimiades,
  • Sue Miller,
  • Irene Zutell.