As part of the cast of the extraordinarily successful situation comedy The Cosby Show in the 1980s, actor Lisa Bonet became an instantly identifiable figure for nearly any American of television-viewing age during those years. Bonet was a teenager when the show began its run, and she matched in real life the free-spiritedness of the character she played. After The Cosby Show Bonet continued to act. Although some of her career decisions were questioned by entertainment-industry observers, Bonet never fell out of the limelight completely. A few high-profile film appearances gave new energy to her career, and with continued work in the mid-2000s she had outlasted many other child stars.
Bonet was born Lisa Michelle Boney on November 16, 1967, in San Francisco, California. She is biracial, the daughter of a white mother, a schoolteacher named Arlene, and a half-black, half-Cherokee father. Bonet's parents' marriage broke up shortly after she was born, and she grew up not knowing her father. As a child she experienced feelings of not fitting in with either black or white classmates, and she channeled her feelings into class-clown antics. The family moved to Los Angeles, and Bonet's mother, noticing her abilities and her evolving good looks, signed her up for acting lessons at Celluloid Actors' Studio and steered her toward auditions for television commercials. Bonet stepped in front of the cameras for the first time when she was 11.
Bonet's commercial work led to small television parts, one of them in the hit series St. Elsewhere. These brought her to the attention of the producers of The Cosby Show, which made its debut on the NBC television network in 1984 after being turned down by ABC. Bonet, who was 16 when the show started its run, played Denise Huxtable, the second of five children born to African-American professional couple Cliff Huxtable (Cosby) and his wife Clair (Phylicia Rashad).
"I was just beginning to fine out what my philosophies and aspirations were," Bonet told Carol Cooper of Essence. "I didn't even know I really wanted to act when I got the show! It was just something I did after school while I was in the ninth grade." The Cosby Show became a hit almost overnight, and Lisa Bonet was a star. The show followed Denise Huxtable through a period in which she attended college and then got married, allowing the show's writers to feature her to a greater or lesser degree as desired.
That proved fortunate: Bonet sometimes clashed on the set with Cosby, who retained creative control over the show. Some of the problems reportedly stemmed from Bonet's role in the 1987 film Angel Heart, in which she played a voodoo priestess romantically involved with a private detective (Mickey Rourke). The film featured explicit sexuality, avoiding an X rating only after a key scene was trimmed. She was also featured nude in photos that appeared in (and on the cover of) Rolling Stone magazine. The decisions were driven by Bonet's desire not to be typecast in Denise Huxtable roles forever. Eventually, Bonet spent less time on The Cosby Show set and instead was given a lead role in a Cosby spin-off series, A Different World.
That show, like Cosby itself, broke new ground in the depiction of African-American characters; it followed the experiences of a group of black students at a fictitious Southern school, Hillman College. The show went on the air in 1987 and did well; although some attributed its success to the strong lead-in Cosby provided for its time-slot, it remained successful in syndication and was shown anew on the nostalgia cable channel Nick at Nite beginning in 2006. "When people approach me, it's usually people who are so grateful that there was someone on TV they could identify with, because that just wasn't out there then," Bonet told Neal Justin of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Bonet was written out of A Different World after a year because she was pregnant. The father was Lenny Kravitz, then an unknown rock musician working under the name Romeo Blue. The two met at a Los Angeles concert by the group New Edition, became friends, and married in 1987. Their daughter, Zoe, was born in 1988. After that, Bonet returned to The Cosby Show. Her married character appeared less frequently than before, and Bonet gained a reputation as a difficult person to work with, sometimes showing up late for tapings or missing them completely.
For several years Bonet stayed in the headlines, partly because she was involved with Kravitz's blooming career. She directed one of his music videos, and reports circulated that some of his songs were written about her. This was true even after the couple divorced in 1993, and they eventually reestablished a friendship even as Kravitz became involved in a series of high-profile relationships. Bonet, a vegetarian, began dating yoga instructor Brian Kest, and the two had a son.
Bonet's own career, however, became less active. She appeared in a few television and direct-to-video films, at times reverting to her birth name or using the name Lilakoi Moon. Occupied with raising her children, Bonet didn't work at all for several years after appearing in the SciFi Channel cable-television film New Eden in 1995. "I've always been pretty picky about what I do … and maybe, sometimes, not picky enough," she admitted to Daniel Fierman of Entertainment Weekly.
She still had strong drawing power, and in the late 1990s, when memories of The Cosby Show and Angel Heart began to fade, significant film parts began to come her way. A supporting role in the 1998 Gene Hackman/Will Smith thriller Enemy of the State, she told Fierman, "basically fell into my lap." In 2000 she had another supporting role in a major hit, playing a vocalist who has a one-night stand with music-store manager John Cusack in High Fidelity.
Bonet's troubled relationship with the Cosby phenomenon seemed to reappear in 2002, when she, alone among the show's then-child actors, declined to appear in the NBC network special The Cosby Show Reunion. "The whole experience and energy behind it felt disingenuous and motivated by corporate profit," Bonet told Tom Cunneff of People. "I was not feeling the love. It was a take-it-or-leave-it, with-or-without-you offer, and I felt devalued and disrespected." She continued to find interesting film roles, however, appearing in the 2003 motorcycle thriller Biker Boyz opposite Laurence Fishburne and her A Different World co-star Kadeem Hardison. In 2006 she was seen in the drama Whitepaddy, which also featured Sherilyn Fenn and former basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Still looking for a role that fit her as well as that of Denise Huxtable, Lisa Bonet remained a very familiar face.
Angel Heart, 1987.
Bank Robber, 1993.
Dead Connection, 1994.
Enemy of the State, 1998.
High Fidelity, 2000.
Biker Boyz, 2003.
At a Glance …
Born Lisa Michelle Boney on November 16, 1967, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Allen and Arlene Boney; married Lenny Kravitz (a musician), 1987 (divorced 1993); children: Zoe (by Kravitz), son (by Brian Kest, a yoga instructor). Education: Attended Celluloid Actors' Studio, North Hollywood, CA.
Career: Actor, 1978–.
Addresses: Agent—c/o Innovative Artists, 1505 10th St., Santa Monica, CA 90401.
The Cosby Show, NBC, 1984–87, 1989–92.
A Different World, NBC, 1987–88.
New Eden (television movie), SciFi Channel, 1994.
Lathe of Heaven (television movie), A&E, 1992.
Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, volume 48, Gale, 2003.
Newsmakers 1989, issue 4, Gale, 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, December 11, 1998, p. 51.
Essence, February 1990, p. 54.
People, April 29, 2002, p. 51.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), July 23, 2006, p. F1.
"Biography for Lisa Bonet," Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com (July 25, 2006).
"Lisa Bonet," Hollywood.com, www.hollywood.com/celebs/fulldetail/id/196650 (July 25, 2006).