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Ennis Cosby's True Story Was of Triumph

January 17, 1997|GREG BRAXTON and SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To the extent that the world knew Ennis Cosby, it was as a shining star of his father's hilarious imaginary life. He was the sly adolescent whose first words upon turning 16 were, allegedly: "Wanna Porsche." He was the kid who shaved his head for no reason and attacked his sisters with wet towels.

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 African American families. He was, in short--and though the country scarcely knew him--America's son.

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 mom who, like her husband, has a PhD. 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.

"He was a kid becoming a man, with everything in the world going for him," said famed civil rights leader Andrew Young, in a passionately worded response to the street violence that claimed the life of the 27-year-old man he regarded as a friend.

"I saw in him hope for all youth," Young's statement said, calling Cosby "a black prince . . . shot down for nothing."

Despite his father's high-profile career, Ennis Cosby spent most of his life shielded from the public glare. Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, assiduously protected the privacy of their children, and stressed education over the allure of Hollywood.

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 wildly popular 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.

Often, as Cosby spoke in interviews about his family, the loving detail in which he laid out his yarns revealed as much about the deep bonds between the son and the father as they did about the workings of the comedian's mind.

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 a new Corvette.

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

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

In the next breath, however, the comedian added proudly: "Young Ennis, by the way is now 6 feet 3 inches tall."

Cosby boasted about his kid, detailing his son's athletic prowess and how Ennis was "a gentleman athlete," until the interviewer changed the subject.

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

Years later, Cosby would tell the New York Times another story about Ennis' adolescent years.

"It bothered me that Ennis was not doing his schoolwork," Cosby said in that 1992 interview. "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 reenacted 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--a possibility that had never crossed his high school teachers' minds.

Overjoyed to discover the source of his struggle, the Cosbys enrolled their son in a special curriculum. There, they would later say, he learned how to cope 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.

His mother told Jet Magazine he was on the dean's list when he graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he received a bachelor's degree in psychology.

That experience also became the inspiration for an episode of "The Cosby Show": In the final episode, Theo overcomes dyslexia to graduate from college, and his proud father can't get enough seats for his graduation.

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