Cos and Effect
Millions of Americans would agree. In its 1984-92 NBC run, The Cosby Show reigned as TV's top-rated series for five years, mining sitcom gold (and six Emmys) from deceptively simple story lines: the family mourning the death of daughter Rudy's goldfish; daughter Vanessa's carping about her curfew; Cliff trying to find a quiet (i.e., child-free) place to nap; the whole clan lip-synching R&B tunes.
Did we leave anything out? Oh yeah: The Huxtables were black—happy and prosperous with a two-career couple firmly at the helm (Phylicia Rashad played strict but loving mom Clair, a lawyer). Suddenly America's black middle class saw itself reflected on TV. "It was the right time and the right place, and I think everybody was ready for it," says Sabrina Le Beauf (oldest daughter Sondra). Still, "audiences could identify with the Huxtables, whether they were white, black or purple," says executive producer Tom Werner.
At times the show would be criticized by some for not being black enough, for not taking on issues like racism and poverty. Cosby was unapologetic. "I wanted to leave all of that anger and controversy outside of [the Huxtables'] door," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "I wanted to show people getting along—positive." But the outside world subtly imposed itself: A TV replay of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech riveted the Huxtable kids; an antiapartheid poster hung in Theo's room; Sondra named her twins Nelson and Winnie after the Mandelas.
Over the years Cliff and Clair saw their kids mature, move out and start families. Now, with NBC airing a Cosby Show reunion on May 19, PEOPLE caught up with five of the six young actors who grew up in the Huxtable household. (Lisa Bonet declined to participate in the special. "I felt devalued and disrespected," she says.) Dr. and Mrs. H. can be proud. "Everyone has grown up as genuine, good people," says Warner. "None of us have flipped out."
Malcolm-Jamal Warner Mischievous Theo
The 31-year-old actor now stars in Jeremiah, a Showtime sci-fi series in which everyone over 30 has been wiped out by plague. "My character, Kurdy, is a badass," says Warner, who has been dating former Malcolm & Eddie castmate Karen White for the past five years. He also fronts (on stand-up bass) Miles Long, his L.A.-based jazz-funk band. But to most fans he's still Theo. "People say to me, 'You've grown up—now I feel old.' And I'll say, 'Well, Keshia has graduated from college,' and they'll go, 'Ohhhhh.'"
Keshia Knight Pulliam Adorable Rudy
She's driving a Jaguar and sporting rhinestone sandals? "I'm not a little kid," says Pulliam. No kidding. But she might not have made it to a ripe old 23 had she been home last year when a fire gutted her Atlanta house four days before she graduated from Spelman College with a B.A. in sociology. Now the house, is rebuilt, and Pulliam, who's single, is back into acting, with What About Your Friends, a coming-of-age drama (May 31 on UPN). "It's what I want to do with the rest of my life," she says.
Tempestt Bledsoe Whiny Vanessa
Bledsoe, who lives in L.A., has been shopping a TV pilot around town. "It's about a group of young people approaching 30," she says, "who aren't succeeding and now are feeling the pressure." That bill doesn't quite fit the single actress, who turns 29 in August and recently finished shooting Bachelor-Man, a romantic comedy. Still, she's glad she has a 1994 B.S. in finance from New York University to fall back on. As an ex-child actor, she says, "you have to prove yourself over and over again."
Sabrina Le Beauf Big sister Sondra
After Princeton grad Sondra wed boyfriend Elvin in Cosby's third season, "that's when my life began to change," says Le Beauf, 44. "There was more publicity, and I was able to guest star" on shows like Hotel. But the actress, who divorced businessman husband Michael Reynolds in 1997 and remains unattached, returned to her roots in repertory theater. The New Yorker remains proud of her Cosby days. "People say, 'I grew up with you,'" she says. "I didn't realize that it meant so much to so many people."
Raven-Symone Granddaughter Olivia
Joining the cast in 1989 as the stepdaughter of Lisa Bonet's Denise, Raven-Symone was just 6 when the show ended. Now 16, "I'll always be known as a Cosby kid," she says, "and it doesn't bother me. I get to keep that fan base." And expand it. Post-Cosby, she has appeared in two Doctor Doolittle movies (as Eddie Murphy's daughter) and the '90s sitcom Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, and toured as a singer with 'N Sync in 1999. She'll play a psychic teen on an upcoming Disney Channel series, That's So Raven.
Michael A. Lipton
Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles, Mark Dagostino in New york City and Michael Cohen in Atlanta