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.
Sabrina Le Beauf (Sondra) and Geoffrey Owens (Elvin)
On television. they were a combustible, hopelessly-in-love married couple. Separately, Le Beauf and Owens have had modest success after The Cosby Show. In addition to excelling at regional theater, Le Beauf handled voice duties as Norma Bindlebeep on Nick at Nite’s animated Fatherhood, based on Bill Cosby’s 1987 book of the same name. Owens has had a myriad of small guest appearances on Las Vegas (NBC), Medium (CBS) and Without a Trace (CBS).
Erika Alexander (Pam)
Alexander’s 1990 inclusion in The Cosby Show as cousin Pam signaled the series proverbial jump-the-shark moment for some critics. Yet she got the last laugh as the scene-stealing, acid-tongued lawyer Maxine on the classic Fox sitcom Living Single (1993-1998). Since then, she’s been spotted in a variety of guest appearances on NBC’s ER, Law & Order and CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami.
As former child stars go, Symoné is the ultimate antithesis to the usual tales of cocaine-addled burnout. Her Disney-backed Cheetah Girls franchise (2003, 2006) has grossed more than $400 million from merchandising, DVD and record sales, as the kid’s favorite has earned between a reported $40-45 million per year. Just cut this girl the check. That’s so Raven.
An outspoken, staunch Republican, Phillips has kept his television chops up securing guest parts in such shows as The Ghost Whisperer (CBS) and Bones (Fox). But come on! Surely, those gigs can’t compare to his four-year run as dashing attorney Justus Ward on General Hospital (ABC). Well, on second thought.
Rashad’s stellar performance as Lena Younger in the 2008 television adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic A Raisin in the Sun was no surprise. The veteran had already won a Tony in 2004 for its stage revival, becoming the first African American to win the award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. Four years later, she again starred on Broadway as Big Mama in the all-African-American production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The only thing left for the fabulous Rashad to conquer is to become a national spokesperson for the Jenny Craig weight loss campaign. Hey, wait a minute …
Bill Cosby (Cliff)
You could easily forgive one of the highest paid stars in television history, if he decided to just purchase a Caribbean island and lay low. (He is rumored to have a net worth of $315 million.) But, instead, there was an uninspired revival of the Groucho Marx game show You Bet Your Life (1992-93), the oddly tepid 1994 Cosby Mysteries and a role in the God-awful The Meteor Man. Yet, he bounced back, finding moderate success with the CBS comedy Cosby (CBS). The show, which centered on Cosby as a senior citizen whose troublemaking ways create comedic hijinks with his wife—once again played by Phylicia Rashad—had a more than respectable four-year run (1996-2000).
These days, though, the Cos is making more noise as a controversial author/social critic. In 2005, he created a firestorm when he charged that low-income blacks were not “holding up their end of the deal,” blasting parents who spend more money on athletic shoes than education, and who blame whites for their current state. Cosby’s book Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors (2007) gave further ammunition to detractors who claimed that the lovable sitcom dad had lost touch with the plight of black America.
Winner: Bill may have more money than some third-world country’s gross national product. And Ms. Rashad may have all the post-Cosby accolades. But Raven-Symoné’s multi-million dollar Cheetah Girl come-up (she has since left the franchise) is all the more the impressive when you factor in that she’s still holding down her spot as a certifiable ‘tween queen at the age of 23. Game? Olivia.
Keith "Murph" Murphy is a veteran music journalist and pop-culture critic.