It was the sort of well-orchestrated send-off that was not at all shy about its intentions. On April 30, 1992, the last episode of NBC’s groundbreaking comedy The Cosby Show was aired, and it was clear the producers and writers of the landmark institution were aiming for a smile-inducing tear-jerker. After eight-years, Cosby was finally saying goodbye. Cliff and Clair Huxtable, in a loving embrace, literally danced off the set of their fictitious Brooklyn brownstone and into the proverbial sunset amid an emotional standing ovation from an appreciative studio audience. It was magic.
But for most actors, trying to duplicate the magic of such career-making, transcendent success can be daunting. What would be next, though, for this talented ensemble? Some actors are able to make the transition, finding life in the post-big-show afterlife. Sherman Hemsley, for example, exorcized the “honky”-hating, back-walking, Weezy-loving ghost of The Jeffersons’ iconic George Jefferson by scoring another hit with the church comedy Amen, (NBC, 1986-91). For others, it’s been a struggle—Michael Richards’ 2006 N-word meltdown during a stand-up routine at West Hollywood’s Laugh Factory did much to validate whispers of the Seinfeld curse.
It’s no different for Cosby alumni, who’ve met with different rates of success over the years, from the mediocre to the meteoric. Here’s a rundown of the best—and the worst—post-Cosby performances from members of America’s favorite family:
Lisa Bonet (Denise)
Bonet, who played the rebellious and at times sweetly flaky Denise Huxtable, peaked early. The same year (1987) she starred in the Cosby college spin-off, A Different World, she made her film debut in the controversial supernatural drama Angel Heart. Bonet’s graphic sex scene with Mickey Rourke initially garnered the film an X-rating: Longtime Cosby Show fans needed therapy after witnessing “Denise” get it on while naked and covered in chicken blood. It also created tension between the free-spirited actress and the family-friendly Cosby, who objected to all that … filth. Bonet was eventually dismissed from the Cosby Show in 1991—but was welcomed back into the fold for its final season. Still, the multiracial bohemian chick who was married to, and divorced from rock star Lenny Kravitz, did bounce back. Bonet appeared in the 1998 Will Smith blockbuster Enemy of the State; the romantic comedy classic High Fidelity; and the 2003 motorcycle flick Biker Boyz. (OK, so two out of three isn’t bad.) She was last seen on the criminally underrated and now defunct sci-fi series Life on Mars (ABC, 2008).
Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo)
While no one would ever mistake the mildly funny buddy sitcom Malcolm & Eddie (UPN) for Cosby, Warner’s formulaic situation comedy, which co-starred hyperactive comedian Eddie Griffin, ran for an impressive four years (1996-2000). One more season and the former Cosby kid would have been looking at another syndication check. Warner was last seen in a cameo, playing a man with a brain tumor opposite Jada Pinkett-Smith on Lifetime’s Hawthorne.
Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa)
Forget her mid-‘90s syndicated daytime talkfest The Tempestt Bledsoe Show. Bledsoe’s current gig: She and former A Different World actor and longtime boyfriend Darryl M. Bell (we see you, Mr. Homeboys in Outer Space) are featured in Fox Reality Channel’s Househusbands of Hollywood). So what if they’re not actually married?
Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy)
The youngest of the Cosby kids (before the arrival of Raven-Symoné) grown-and-sexy Pulliam recently played Candy, a former heroin addict/prostitute in Tyler Perry’s 2009 Madea Goes To Jail (Lionsgate/Tyler Perry Studios). Oscar caliber stuff? Um, no. But being connected to the much debated yet box-office-dominating Perry (Pulliam is also a regular on his syndicated television show House of Payne) doesn’t hurt. At all.