By People Staff
March 05, 2001 12:00 PM

Many of us were there at the start. The Cosby Show’s Phylicia Ayers-Allen had finished hosting the 1985 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for NBC when she was hustled off to the network’s Rockefeller Center studios. There she learned that NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, whom she’d been dating for nearly a year, had interrupted an NFL pregame show in Michigan with a personal plea. “Phylicia, will you marry me?” he asked before an estimated 40 million witnesses.

Now a little more than 15 years later, their life together has ended on a far more private note. In December, Phylicia Rashad, 52, filed for divorce from Ahmad Rashad, 51, in Manhattan Supreme Court, citing abandonment. “They’ve been living separate lives for some time now,” a friend told New York’s Daily News, “but they held off on filing for the sake of their daughter.” So far, Phylea, 14, remains with her mother.

Still, the breakup of the couple, who were introduced by Bill Cosby in 1984, was unexpected. “It was such a surprise,” says James Freydberg, producer of the L.A. staging of The Vagina Monologues, in which Phylicia costarred last fall. “She gave not the slightest sign [of trouble].”

Both Rashads are familiar with the distress of separation. Phylicia split with Village People frontman Victor Willis in 1980 and was married for three years in the early ’70s to dentist William L. Bowles Jr., the father of her son William, now 27, a production coordinator. Ahmad was divorced in the early ’80s from Dierdre Waters, with whom he had three children, now grown.

The former Minnesota Vikings All-Pro, who officially changed his address from the couple’s Mount Vernon, N.Y., home in January, issued a statement saying he was “saddened” by the divorce and asking that the family “be allowed to deal with this privately.” Phylicia has seemingly turned to her career for solace. She will soon cohost benefits for Broadway Cares and breast cancer, her film The Visit opens in April, and this summer she will appear in Blue, an Off-Broadway comedy. For now, says a longtime friend, “she’s fine. She’s busy.”