The sitcom format had been pronounced dead when Bill Cosby revived it with a bang. Some 30 million homes tuned in to NBC's Emmy-winning Cosby Show
each week, making it No. 1 for five straight years. Cosby was justly proud that his show portrayed something new: an upper-middle-class African-American family. The appeal was universal. Says Phylicia Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable: "It demonstrated very clearly that we are willing and wanting to embrace our likenesses as human beings."
Keshia Knight Pulliam
"A couple of years ago I was walking through a mall in Virginia," recalls Malcolm-Jamal Warner. "I heard, 'Malcolm, Malcolm!' I turned around and thought, 'Hey, she's cute.' Then I realized, 'It's Keshia!'" His confusion is understandable. Keshia Knight Pulliam, 21, the littlest Huxtable, is now a poised, Jaguar-driving sociology major at Atlanta's Spelman College. The oldest of four children of James, 42, her manager, and homemaker Denise, 41, Pulliam, who now has her own Atlanta townhouse, remembers that at home in Piscataway, N.J., "I was never Keshia the actress. I did dishes and everything. My parents didn't want me to miss anything." What she did miss were some small things. "I wanted to ride the school bus," she says. "But I was too recognizable." Pulliam, who attended Virginia's tony Foxcroft prep school after The Cosby Show
, has a steady boyfriend, whom she refuses to name. "I'll only say that my parents told me that anyone I choose to be with should treat me like a princess," she says. In 1997, Pulliam reunited with her TV folks Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad when she did a cameo on Cosby
as a musician. She intends to get back in the biz after college—acting, directing, producing. Whatever she does, though, she'll never forget Rudy Huxtable. "I'm always going to be Rudy to most people," says Pulliam, "and Rudy will always be a part of me."
The secret was simple. "From day one, Bill would ask the cast, 'Would you treat your father that way?'" says Caryn Mandabach, president of Carsey-Werner Productions, which put on The Cosby Show
. "They played it as if they were his children." That's how Bill Cosby, 62, became America's favorite dad. "We called him Mr. Cosby or Doctor," says his TV son Malcolm-Jamal Warner, referring to Cosby's Ph.D. in education. "He didn't ask us to, but he commands that kind of respect." Like the loving but firm-handed patriarch he played, Cosby took jokes in stride. "If he had to yell up the stairs, we'd be offstage doing something silly," recalls Phylicia Rashad, who played wife Clair. "He never cracked up. He'd just shake his head and go on." The series crowned Cosby's distinguished career. Later, his personal life unraveled. In 1997 a gunman killed his only son, Ennis, the third of his five children with Camille, his wife of 36 years. Soon after, a 22-year-old woman named Autumn Jackson sued him in an unsuccessful paternity suit. (Cosby admitted to a single fling with the girl's mother.) To this day, Cosby regards The Cosby Show
as his high-water mark. "I wanted a show that presented black people in a light you don't often see," he said last year. "I loved my wife. I loved my kids. They loved us. It's not up to me to say if I accomplished that. You tell me. Did I?"
It wasn't only viewers who learned a thing or two from The Cosby Show
's parenting problems. Playing a working mom on TV helped Phylicia Rashad take real life less seriously. After dealing with the messy room of teenage Theo on the series, she says, "I realized that my own son Billy's room was typical. Oh, that room, that room!" Billy (from Rashad's first marriage to William Bowles Jr.) grew up just fine. Now 27, he's a production coordinator. Rashad, 52, is still raising daughter Phylea, 13, at the suburban New York City home she shares with NBC sports commentator Ahmad Rashad, 50, her husband of 14 years. Since April the actress has been starring in a Washington, D.C., production of Blue as a rich woman with a secret past. "Phylicia could play any character from Clair Huxtable to someone who is a schizophrenic," says her sister, director-choreographer Debbie Allen, 50. Rashad, who portrayed Bill Cosby's TV wife again on his just-ended sitcom, Cosby
, has poignant memories of her first TV marriage. "When we were taping the last scene," recalls Rashad, "Bill whispered in my ear, 'I'm going to dance you right off the set' And that's how it ended. When I saw it, I cried."
Like the other Cosby Show
kids, Tempestt Bledsoe quickly blended into her TV family. "She became very much a big sister where we could talk and I could ask her questions," says Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy. "Sometimes I'd spend the night at her house." While the L.A.-based Bledsoe, 26, respects her Cosby Show
roots, she has battled to spread her wings. She's frustrated over not getting roles, she recently told the San Antonio Express-News
, "because somebody still sees you as 12 years old." The single Bledsoe, an ardent cook who has a degree in finance from NYU, has had some luck breaking that perception. After her short-lived talk show, Tempestt, was canceled in 1996, she had a recurring role as a tough-talking single mom on The Practice
. In April she costarred in the USA Network movie The Expendables
, playing a gun-toting prisoner on a secret mission. "She was meticulous in her research," says director Janet Meyers. "She spoke with inmates who had been in gangs, and I could tell she was affected by the experience." Bledsoe later said, "It wasn't a fun place for me, to be in this character's head." But she sees her artistic transformation as a victory. "It's hard for a television actor to reinvent himself," she said. "And even harder for a child actor to do it."
"The best thing Bill Cosby ever did for us was to tape that show in Brooklyn," says Malcolm-Jamal Warner. "We weren't hanging around a studio lot. We didn't eat in the commissary. We had to go out and have lunch in the neighborhood. New York is a harder place to live than L.A., and I'm glad for the experience." The street smarts have stayed with him. Encouraged by Cosby to develop his nascent musical talent, Warner, 29, who plays stand-up bass, now fronts the L.A. jazz-funk band Miles Long, whose first CD comes out this summer on Warner's own label, the Wonder Factory. "I'm no Charles Mingus," Warner says, referring to the jazz-bass legend. "But I make up for it in heart." Cosby also encouraged Warner to direct and allowed him to helm a few episodes of The Cosby Show
. "He did his homework," says Marcy Carsey, the show's executive producer. "We all wanted to help him get a start." Warner became the director and costar of the UPN sitcom Malcolm & Eddie
, which was recently canceled after four years. Regardless, says Malcolm & Eddie
executive producer David Duclon, "he's going to be successful in all his endeavors. He has that positive, confident attitude." Such an outlook can help get Warner through difficult times, like those he experienced when his former girlfriend, actress Michelle Thomas (who had a recurring role on Family Matters
), died of a rare type of abdominal cancer in 1998 at age 30. Although the pair had ended their six-year relationship in 1994, they remained friends, and Warner was at her bedside when she passed away. Warner, who lives in a sleek Studio City, Calif., house with his pit bull Mecca and rottweiler Makeba, remains unattached. "I just want to have a life right now," he says. "Then I'll think about getting married and having a family."
Her Cosby character didn't fit into any mold, a role that seemed made for Lisa Bonet. She recently told Vibe
that Denise showed "it's okay to be a freak." Her first three seasons on Cosby
—and one on the spinoff A Different World
—were basically trouble-free. But then Bonet embarked on a kind of anti-Huxtable tear. She had steamy sex with Mickey Rourke in the 1987 feature film Angel Heart
and the following year posed nude for Rolling Stone. In 1991, after reported disagreements with Bill Cosby, she was dumped from the show. Meanwhile, the actress had married rock star Lenny Kravitz, who shares her half-Jewish, half-black heritage. They split two years after their daughter Zoë, now 11, was born. Bonet later moved north of L.A. to funky Topanga Canyon and legally changed her name to Lilakoi Moon. But raising Zoë brought her back to earth. Motherhood, Bonet, 32, recently said, "accelerated my growth and my desire to be here and to participate in a loving, conscious way on this planet." The actress, who made notable turns in 1998's Enemy of the State
and this year's High Fidelity
, does volunteer work with juvenile offenders in L.A. Until last year she also ran an outreach program at Venice High School. "She's committed to doing something meaningful," said Venice High principal Bud Jacobs. "She's very spiritual."
Sabrina Le Beauf
More famous actresses read for the part of the Huxtables' oldest daughter, but Sabrina Le Beauf blew Bill Cosby away. "She beat out Whitney Houston," said Cosby, who was impressed not only by her natural talent but also by her Yale School of Drama degree. Le Beauf also wowed her Huxtable siblings. "She brought a seriousness to her character in terms of her respect for her craft," recalls Malcolm-Jamal Warner. "We were all so young and impressionable, so it was good for us to have her on the show." But Le Beauf, now 42, abruptly turned her back on TV after The Cosby Show
and took up a new art: interior design. She has been a student at UCLA's School of Interior Design since 1993 and now does projects for an elite clientele with very large decorating budgets. But Le Beauf—who has been divorced since 1997 from businessman Michael Reynolds, 37, after eight years of marriage—still considers herself an actress first. Last year she made a guest appearance on Cosby's sitcom Cosby
, and she's currently appearing in the drama The Diva Daughters DuPree
, staged by Burbank's Robey Theatre Company. "I like the touring lifestyle," she says. "You get to meet great new people." And some with sharp eyes. "A man in a supermarket recognized me from The Cosby Show
. He said, 'You're still the same...but older.' "
"I remember the scent of the stage and the odor of Mr. Cosby's cigars," says Raven-Symoné when trying to recall her days on The Cosby Show
. She has a pretty good memory, considering that she was all of 3 years old when she was cast as Cosby kid Denise Huxtable's stepdaughter and was only 6 when the show ended. The actress, who began modeling at 16 months, has worked steadily since, and she doesn't feel she has been locked into anything. As a regular on Hangin' with Mr. Cooper
for four seasons in the mid-'90s, "I played a country girl," she says. And as Eddie Murphy's daughter in 1998's Dr. Dolittle
, "I was the one with attitude. I haven't been typecast, and that's wonderful." What's more important, according to her parents—Christopher Pear-man, 40, and wife Lydia, 40—"is to keep her grounded. I think it helps a lot that she's not out in L.A.," says Pear-man, who is his daughter's manager. But the road calls, so the 14-year-old, who is a sometime attendee at Atlanta's North Springs High School, travels with a tutor. Also a singer, she released her solo pop CD Undeniable last year and was a warm-up act for 'N Sync. She is currently hopping on and off the Bright Mansion Theaterworks company's tour bus for performances of the drama A Mother's Prayer
. "I don't feel I've missed out on anything," she says. "I have my friends, I go to school dances. This is normal for me."