This wasn't the affable, camera-mugging comedian who made a generation laugh as the firm but loving Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable on NBC's "The Cosby Show." This was Mr. Cosby -- an aging, exasperated, somewhat ornery, activist. Cosby showed a side that the public had never seen, and that may have been the primary reason his outbursts generated so much headlines.
"It wasn't so much what he said, but how he said it," said Mark Chapman, professor of African-American studies at Fordham University in New York. "There was a kind of inflection, a kind of elitism that turned people off. ... It was almost as if he looked down on the urban poor with a measure of disdain."
On both "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World" on NBC and later on CBS with "Cosby," Bill Cosby showcased middle-class African-American life. The shows presented African-Americans who were pursing their education, had college degrees or advanced degrees, raised their children in traditional family settings and were doctors, lawyers and teachers.
His programs showed that not all African-Americans lived in the projects. They could be more than athletes and musicians on TV and film -- and in real life.
Critics of Cosby argued that he didn't portray a balanced picture of African-American life. His characters were all upper-middle class, which critics called an unrealistic portrait of blacks.
But that didn't stop "The Cosby Show" from being the most watched program in the United States for several years.
In his speeches last year, Cosby again attempted to champion the betterment of African-Americans. But his tone, critics argue, may have overshadowed the validity of some of the points he tried to make.
"His tone represented the worst kind of elitism, one that lacks real compassion for the urban poor," Chapman said. "There is nothing wrong with self-criticism, the need for self accountability. That's fair. But when you put all the blame on the urban poor, without offering any solutions to lift them up, you're not really helping anyone. You're sort of piling on. You're continuing the perpetual blame of victims."
As a famous African-American with a doctorate in education, Cosby seemed to validate the long-held beliefs of some white conservatives who would have been labeled racist had they delivered similar tirades, Chapman said.
"People like William Bennett used to talk about the moral poverty of black people," Chapman said. "It's like he [Cosby] is falling into their hands and they can say, 'See, look what one of your own said.'"
The groping allegations were not the first time Cosby was confonted with a scandal. In 1997, Autumn Jackson, a young woman who claimed to be Cosby's daughter, was convicted of attempting to extort money from the entertainer. (Jackson's conviction was overturned in June 1999 but reinstated five months later.)
Cosby testified at trial that he had had an affair with Jackson's mother but did not believe he was the father. He also conceded he had paid Jackson's mother to keep their affair secret and gave her money to set up a trust fund for her daughter.
But news of Cosby's past infidelity did not generate outrage then, perhaps because of the tragic murder of his only son. Jackson tried to extort money from the entertainer on the same day Ennis Cosby was shot to death on the side of a California road.