Malcolm-Jamal Warner Is ‘Still Proud of the Legacy’ of ‘The Cosby Show’

“It certainly broadened the perspective of how the world viewed Black people,” says the actor, who reflected on representations of Black life and culture on TV for PEOPLE’s Black History Month special
More than 30 years after The Cosby Show ended, star Malcolm-Jamal Warner recognizes how it changed the game.

“What made it so groundbreaking was its universality,” Warner, 52, tells PEOPLE in the Black History Month special in this week’s issue. “NBC initially saw it as a show about an upper-middle-class Black family. Mr. [Bill] Cosby diligently impressed upon them that the show was about an upper-middle-class family that happened to be Black.”

The Accused actor, who played son Theo Huxtable, explains the subtle difference: “Prior to The Cosby Show, Black sitcom humor was predicated on being Black, the specificity of the ‘Black’ experience. Though the Huxtables were clearly Black — reflected quite obviously by their dress, the Black art on the walls, the music — the family issues all were universal. And though Cliff [Cosby] was a doctor and Claire [Phylicia Rashad] was an attorney, the family dynamic was one that practically every family — no matter the ethnicity, socio-economic status or even family makeup — could find something to relate to.”

Star Bill Cosby’s legal woes have changed the way some fans remember the show. In 2018, Cosby, 85, was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for charges involving drugging and sexually assaulting another woman. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction in 2021 and the actor was released. Five more women sued Cosby for sexual assault in December, and another one sued him the following month for sexual battery.

“Regardless of how some people may feel about the show now,” says Warner, “I’m still proud of the legacy and having been a part of such an iconic show that had such a profound impact on — first and foremost, Black culture — but also American culture.”

Warner credits Cosby with how it “broadened the perspective of how the world viewed Black people,” while recognizing that the show also received negative feedback.

“While one of the initial criticisms of the show was that Black people didn’t live like the Huxtables, I was getting thousands of letters on the regular saying, ‘Thank you for this show. Our family is the Huxtables, my dad is a doctor, and my mom is a lawyer,'” Warner recalls. “The show shed light on the previously ignored Black middle class, which has always existed.”

He continues, “And people in Cliff and Claire’s generation were often the first in their families to ever go to college, many of them becoming doctors and lawyers, like Barack and Michelle Obama. There’s even an argument that the show laid the groundwork for having a Black President of the United States.”

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The Cosby Show ran for eight seasons between 1984 and 1992, winning six Emmys during its time on NBC. Despite the allegations against Cosby, Warner and several of his costars continue to reflect positively on the show and its legacy.

“I know I can speak for all the cast when I say The Cosby Show is something that we are all still very proud of,” Warner says. “We share a unique experience that keeps us lovingly bonded no matter how much time goes between seeing or hearing from each other.”

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