Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
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Kirk Baird

CULTURE SHOCK

Soap opera plays out in real life

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    'Good Morning America' anchor Robin Roberts, left, with 'The Cosby Show' actor Geoffrey Owens.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Not all soap operas are on daytime television or in our nation's hallowed and gossipy capital. Social media is a font of drama, including an on-going spectacle that’s been playing out for a week. It’s got a hero, lots of villains, twists, and a captive audience.

I’m talking about former Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens, who was unknowingly photographed recently working at a New Jersey Trader Joe’s, followed by two rather cruel stories by the Daily Mail and Fox News that, frankly, were nothing more than vulgar attempts to increase online traffic.

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'Good Morning America' anchor Robin Roberts, left, with 'The Cosby Show' actor Geoffrey Owens.

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Congratulations to both. The journalism profession is in your debt. Meanwhile, people like me should be ashamed for giving in to our baser instincts and clicking on the links.

I was suckered in by the skillfully effective Fox News headline on my news feed app Friday night: “Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens spotted bagging groceries at NJ Trader Joe’s.”

Owens played the handsome Elvin Tibideaux, the husband of the Huxtable’s oldest daughter Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf), through much of the beloved sitcom’s run from 1984-1992.

Naturally, I wanted to know what Owens looks like now? Was he disheveled? Distressed? Dismayed?

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As with most gossip, the story offered an unflattering photo — Owens, 57, sporting a thick and mostly white beard, the notable addition of weight when compared to his TV days, and a Trader Joe’s shirt with sweat spots — as its hook but nothing of substance. Basically, a customer saw Owens while shopping at that Trader Joe’s location, went online to find visual confirmation that it was him, and when she was certain it was, took the photo and submitted it to celebrity websites. The London's Daily Mail, a daily paper known for its sensationalism, took it from there with its one-sided reporting: quotes from the customer, Karma Lawrence, and no attempts to get quotes from Owens.

The story did manage to include the nifty fact that staff at the store “earn around $11 an hour.” At least the Fox News story, a truncated version of the trash piece in the Daily Mail, omitted the wage. Even tabloid journalism has its standards, apparently.

Here’s the rub: Thanks to curious gawkers such as myself, the Owens story was a big hit over the Labor Day Weekend — congrats, again, Daily Mail and Fox News — and he was the subject of public ridicule. Why?

Well, as Owens told Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts in a sit-down interview on Tuesday, he took the job 15 months ago because after a 30-year career that included directing and teaching other actors, “it got to a point where it just didn’t add up enough and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Owens added that he was “really devastated” by what Roberts called “job shaming” on social media and, let’s be honest, in the media as well.

And that’s where the sordid story takes a wonderful turn for the humane.

“The period of devastation was short,” Owens said, as strangers offered encouragement through social media.

“My wife and I started to read these responses from literally all over the world of support,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Lawrence has since offered her regret for the coverage, telling a reporter for NJ.com that she didn’t know why she “snuck a picture”: “I figured everybody does it ... I just kind of did it on impulse and it was a bad impulse.”

Naturally, the fickle impulse of social media justice has pronounced her to be a bad person.

Then filmmaker Tyler Perry offered the actor work on his prime-time soap opera, The Haves and the Have Nots, as it begins shooting more episodes to wrap up its sixth season on Oprah Winfrey’s cable network, OWN. The Daily Mail also included this follow-up story, though it referred to the series as “The Haves and the Haves Nots.”

It would be fitting for Owens to exit this real-life soap opera for a fictional one.

Unfortunately, this soap opera will be quick to recast, thus ensuring the social media drama will never go away — even if the actor does.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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