By People Staff
December 29, 1997 12:00 PM

ON THE EVENING OF DEC. 2, BILL COSBY threw the switch to light up the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. The twinkling symbol of peace and hope was one the 60-year-old entertainer sorely needed. For eight years on TV he had played America’s model father, a man who unraveled the thorny knots of marriage and child-rearing with cheerful, knowing wit. But this year, Cosby’s own life was shattered in ways that alter ego Cliff Huxtable could not even have imagined. On an L.A. freeway last Jan. 16, Cosby’s only son, Ennis, 27, the third of his five children, was killed in an apparent robbery. (Arrested for the crime, Ukrainian immigrant Mikhail Markhasev comes to trial in February.) On the same day as the murder, Cosby’s lawyers received a call from 22-year-old Autumn Jackson, a former L.A. hotel clerk, threatening to tell a tabloid that she was the star’s illegitimate child unless he paid her $40 million. A weaker star might have retreated behind his grief or applied high-powered spin control. Cosby did neither. “He handled it with dignity and grace,” says his friend, Essence magazine publisher Ed Lewis. “He didn’t run away from it.”

Eight days after Ennis’s funeral, Cosby was back on the set of his current CBS sitcom. Cosby executive producer Norman Steinberg asked how he could continue. The comedian told him, “A lot of people depend on me. I have to open my store. This is what I do.” During Jackson’s subsequent trial for extortion, Cosby admitted cheating on Camille, his wife of 33 years. He acknowledged that he had an affair with Autumn’s mother, Shawn Upshaw, and paid her more than $100,000 because he feared she would publicize the tryst. Though Cosby and Jerald Jackson, who claims he is Autumn’s biological father, had blood drawn for eventual DNA comparisons, Autumn refused. She was found guilty and, although she issued an apology to Cosby, was sentenced to 26 months in federal prison, with the possibility of an earlier release to a halfway house.

Cosby has been working through his grief. He issued a memorial jazz album for Ennis, started a new series, Kids Say the Darndest Things, and published Little Bill, a series of illustrated books, dedicated to Ennis, about coping with childhood. He also explores his tribulations in his stand-up routine, “I’m going to read some things from the Bible,” he deadpanned to a New York City benefit audience in October. “Now I don’t want you to think that because of what happened to me this year, I’m going to meet you at the bus station and ask you if you found Christ. No, no.”