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Friday, January 17, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How America `Knew' Ennis Cosby -- In Sitcom, He Was Theo Huxtable

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - To the extent that the world knew Ennis William Cosby, it was as the 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 popped his sisters with wet towels.

He was Theo Huxtable, the TV son on "The Cosby Show," whose relationship with his father redefined the entertainment industry's portrayal of black families. He was, in short, 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 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 yesterday, he died.

No immediate arrests were made. Police suspect the younger Cosby might have been the victim of a robbery attempt, although nothing apparently was taken.

Ennis Cosby was driving a dark-green Mercedes-Benz convertible on the San Diego Freeway when a flat tire forced him to pull over.

He turned on the car's emergency lights and put the spare tire on the car, which was registered to Cosby Productions. He was replacing the lug nuts when he was shot dead with a single gunshot.

A woman who found him next to the car about 1:30 a.m. indicated the assailant was a white man. The woman saw "at least a portion of this, and we are interviewing her," said Police Cmdr. Tim McBride.

The woman was the person Ennis Cosby was en route to visit, according to a KCBS-TV report. He called her by cellular phone at 1:15 a.m. and asked her to come help him light the area. She arrived shortly after the shooting and called police, the station said, citing unidentified sources.

The New York Daily News, citing unidentified police sources, today said she was screenwriter Stephanie Crane, 47.

The Daily News reported that Crane drove to Ennis Cosby's disabled car, spoke briefly to him and waited in her car to stay warm. She told police that she became nervous and drove away when she saw a suspicious man walking toward Ennis Cosby's car.

The Daily News reported that when Crane returned a few minutes later, she found Ennis Cosby's body. The Daily News said the two had met at a Los Angeles party Saturday, but police have not identified the woman or confirmed whether she knew Cosby.

Police sources quoted in today's Daily News also said a second witness was in the area at the time of the killing and that a composite sketch of the suspect might be released today.

`E' for `excellence'

Born on April 15, 1969, in Amherst, Mass., Ennis was Bill Cosby's middle child, sandwiched between four sisters: Erika, Erinn, Ensa and Evin. Bill Cosby once said his children's names each began with an E "to represent excellence."

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, protected the privacy of their children and stressed education over the allure of Hollywood.

In his father's routines, however, Ennis Cosby was a constant source of material, and in interviews, Bill 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, Bill Cosby was the devoted father of four daughters and a son, and the tales of life with his son yielded some of the elder Cosby's most touching and most human comedy.

Often, as Bill Cosby spoke 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.

The tale of the car

In a 1985 Playboy Magazine interview, for instance, Bill 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.

Bill 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?' " Bill Cosby joked.

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

A more difficult story

Years later, Bill Cosby would tell The New York Times another story about his son's adolescent years.

"It bothered me that Ennis was not doing his schoolwork," he said 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 portrayed by Malcolm Jamal-Warner, comes home with lackluster grades and tells his father that the pressure to succeed is just too much.

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

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

The Cosby family enrolled their son in a special curriculum. There, they would later say, he effectively transformed his life.

His mother later told Jet Magazine that 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.

Those who knew him in college said Ennis Cosby never expected to get any special treatment.

"We would talk sometimes in my office, and his thing was that he wanted to do things on his own, personally and professionally," said his adviser, Harold Braithwaite, who now heads the college's psychology department. "He wanted people to accept him as Ennis, not as the son of Bill Cosby. . . . He was a compassionate person and sensitive to other people."

Volunteering to help others

That sensitivity turned to charity when Ennis Cosby later volunteered for a research program on homelessness and addiction, working regularly at a homeless shelter in Atlanta's Midtown, Braithwaite said. "It was something he really wanted to do, and he seemed to get a lot of enjoyment out of it and a great sense of accomplishment."

Jeannette Fleischner said Ennis Cosby dreamed of creating a school and clinic for poor children with learning problems.

"He wanted to make sure that kids who might not have the opportunity to have the help that he had had would get it. So he did all he could to help poor kids," she said.

Yesterday, she said, she had the painful task of informing a 14-year-old boy with whom Ennis Cosby had worked for three years that his mentor had been slain.

"I said to him this afternoon when I spoke with him that we needed to celebrate Ennis' life, and to this young man I said I thought that the best way of honoring Ennis was to work as hard at whatever he chose to do with his life as Ennis had worked with his," she said.

At the time of his slaying, friends and authorities said, Ennis Cosby was preparing to end a two-week vacation in Los Angeles and return to Teacher's College at Columbia University in New York, where he was studying for his doctoral degree in special education with emphasis in reading disabilities.

That path was much like one his father had taken. Bill Cosby received his doctorate in education in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts.

Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, a friend of the family, said yesterday: "He was dedicating his life to the noblest of professions: educating children. And yet that life was stolen by individuals who failed to learn the most elementary lessons of human society."

Information from Associated Press and Knight-Ridder Newspapers is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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