America "knew' Ennis Cosby

Published Jan. 17, 1997|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

To the extent that the world knew Ennis Cosby, it was as the shining star of his father's hilarious imaginary life.

He was Theo Huxtable, the TV son on The Cosby Show, whose relationship with his father redefined, with long-overdue dignity, the entertainment industry's portrayal of black families.

But the private, offstage story of Ennis Cosby's life could have been a drama of heroic proportions in itself: How a beloved child struggled in the shadow of a celebrity father and a Ph.D. mom. How he triumphed over dyslexia and finally found himself.

How he went on to become a tutor to the poor and homeless. And then, tragically, how on Thursday he died.

Despite his father's high-profile career, Ennis Cosby spent most of his life shielded from the public glare.

In his father's routines, however, Ennis was a constant source of material, and in interviews, Cosby often spoke about the parallels between his own family and that of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, the lead character on the 1980s comedy series, The Cosby Show.

In both the sitcom and real life, Cosby was the devoted father of four daughters and a son, and the tales of life with his son yielded some of Cosby's most touching and most human comedy.

In a 1985 Playboy magazine interview, for instance, Cosby told a story about how Ennis, at 14, had told him that he had been talking to his friends, and they felt he should get a car at 16. It would be nice, the son added, if that car were to be a new Corvette.

Cosby told him that he would happily give him the car if, for the next two years, he threw himself into his schoolwork.

"My son gets very quiet. Finally he looks up and me and says, "Dad, what do you think about a Volkswagen?' " Cosby joked.

What Cosby didn't talk about in that interview was the concern he and his wife had at that time for Ennis. Though Cosby joked about it, Ennis' school performance in those years was anything but funny.

"It bothered me that Ennis was not doing his schoolwork," Cosby told the New York Times in 1992. "I sat him down and said, we're going to talk, and I want you to say whatever is on your mind."

That conversation ended up being re-enacted years later on an episode of The Cosby Show, as Theo, the middle child and only son, comes home with lackluster grades and tells his father, the successful obstetrician, that the pressure to succeed is just too much.

"(Ennis) said he wanted to be regular people," Cosby recalled. "He didn't want the pressure of studying."

It wasn't until Ennis Cosby finally made it to college four years later that the family learned the real reason for his frustration in school: Tests determined that he was dyslexic.

The Cosbys enrolled their son in a special curriculum. There, they would later say, he learned how to cope with his learning difference and effectively transformed his life.

Ennis Cosby, his father would later boast, returned to college after completing the program for dyslexics, and in the space of two years, brought his grade point average up from a D to an A.

He later graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology.