Hollywood's Bill Cosby Amnesia: Gavin Polone Has a Cure (Guest Column)

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Bill Cosby and Hugh Hefner

NBC, Carsey-Werner and WME must stop trotting out the ridiculous "challenging times" excuse and hire lawyers to find out who enabled the comic's decades-long reign of terror and abuse, writes a Hollywood producer

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The continuous disclosures about Bill Cosby’s alleged (I chuckle every time I write that adjective in connection with this story) misdeeds have been terrific in terms of bringing some justice for this vast collection of his alleged (I just laughed again) crimes. But has it done anything to protect vulnerable woman from being victimized by powerful men in the entertainment industry? I’d say no but, if we shift our focus a bit, it could. 

The Cosby Show producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner’s statement, after the story broke, that the allegations against Cosby were “beyond [their] knowledge and comprehension” is possibly true but I don’t believe it. I’ve worked on many film and TV sets, and keeping secrets is almost impossible. If Cosby were bringing a slew of women to the studio where his show was taped, many people would have seen it and it would have been a constant topic of gossip. Everyone on a production seems to find out if a sound mixer is having an affair with a hair stylist, and they aren’t even famous. When the star of the show picks a celery stick off the craft service table, everyone notices. And when that star is the biggest celebrity in America, as Cosby was, the attention paid is even greater. People then gossip about what is going on and the information flows from top to bottom. The executive producers of the show, or their minions, would be around this and would have very likely seen or heard it all.

In a 1986 article published in Life magazine, an incident is recounted where Cosby had a violent physical altercation with a crew member. Included in the article was a scary picture of Cosby using an “Eric Garneresque” headlock on the man. In reference to this incident, Carsey-Werner executive Caryn Mandabach (then Caryn Sneider) said, “it was just nothing.” A Spy magazine article from that year recounts incidents on the set of Cosby bullying costumers and making an unflattering and public pronouncement about a guest star’s breasts. It would seem that Cosby wasn’t trying too hard to hide the ugly side of his personality and that there was an established precedent for ignoring and/or discounting his behavior. Further, NBC’s programming and publicity executives, and the heads of the network, would have been at the show often during its long run, talking to the producers and kowtowing to the star whose giant hit show saved their jobs.  

While 46 women have come forward with allegations (tee hee hee), it is evident that others have remained silent and some, probably many, were compelled to keep quiet after they initiated a legal process for redress and ultimately received compensation. It is unlikely that the public would know if any of those women had settled their cases against Cosby prior to filing a complaint. At the same time, if settlements related to abuses that occurred at The Cosby Show studio were made, it is also unlikely that the producers of the show wouldn’t know about it. The way these things work is that the plaintiff’s lawyer, like Ronda Rousey leaning down onto an opponent’s elbow, would want to use her leverage to the greatest extent possible and score a quick tap out. In these cases, the vulnerable joint isn’t the possibility that there could be a big court judgment but rather that the defendant could lose his big reputation in the court of public opinion, should the allegations (bahhhh!!!) become public. Therefore, the start of the process is the sending of a confidential demand letter, which lets the defendant know that they are about to be sued publicly. In every case I know, the plaintiff’s lawyer doesn’t only go after the alleged offender (oh dear lord, it never gets old) but also any other deep-pocketed person or company even remotely connected to the incident. In the Cosby case, that would most certainly include Carsey-Werner and NBC. Their respective heads of business affairs or general counsels would have also received the same demand letter. That letter would then most certainly have been discussed up the chain of command.

In an interview with THR on July 31, Werner answered a question about the Cosby allegations (really, it’s like inhaling nitrous oxide) by saying, “Obviously it’s a challenging time for Bill Cosby and a challenging time for the show, but I’m hoping that people will still be able to watch the show and identify with the Huxtables.” Wait, what?!! Did he really say that? Does anyone give a fuck what challenges Cosby might be facing? Women were allegedly (not laughing now) fucking drugged and raped! Even if you believe Cosby’s story of what happened, he is a decadent, egotistical, misogynistic degenerate. Fuck him! And fuck that outdated sitcom, too. Even mentioning the idea that people should still watch the show and identify with a character so deeply associated with this man and his deeds is insensitive to the women on whom he preyed.

Werner should immediately hire a law firm to investigate his company to find out who knew what and when. If these acts were truly “beyond [his] knowledge” and those of his partners and employees, it would be good to know for sure. If there were, as I suspect, people at his company who ignored or enabled Cosby, that should be known, too. The same with NBC. And, for that matter, the same with Playboy Enterprises, since much of this abominable behavior took place at the company-supported “mansion.” William Morris Endeavor should also be included on this list, since Cosby himself has said, under oath, that one of its agents delivered cash to an aggrieved woman, and maybe more than one, on his behalf.  I’ve worked at talent agencies. They are warehouses of gossip. If an agent did this, probably his assistant knew and someone from accounting who handled the cash and reimbursement also probably knew. And, given how freely Cosby included those dependent on him into his circle of deceit, there might have been a deeper connection between his agents and how he managed his relationships with women. This has to come out.

Now, why would any of the above voluntarily uncover their past when today there is no legal recourse against them?  Because there is no statute of limitations on a reputation. Werner is an owner of a baseball team. The American public has shown with Donald Sterling that it cares about the character of the custodians of its sports teams. NBC is the holder of a government license, a public company and a journalistic enterprise: it would be damaged if it was proved to have hidden or condoned the mistreatment of women. Playboy and WME are privately-held companies, partly owned by private equity firms. They surely will attempt to either become public companies or be sold to public companies, in the near future. Proving that they are scandal-free will be important to the potential buyers of their stock. Waiting for the truth to come out some other way will only make any or all them look more complicit.

I promise you, if any organization that may have played a part in this vile story self-exposes and then self-sanitizes, it will be far better off. Tom Werner is partially right, this is a “challenging time.” For him, for Cosby’s potential enablers, and for anyone who wants to prevent this from happening again.

Gavin Polone is a film and television producer and director.

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