After a customer took a photo of Geoffrey Owens working at Trader Joe’s in New Jersey, the former Cosby Show star’s first thought was of his son, as he feared the 19-year-old would be humiliated when people found out his dad worked at a supermarket.
“My wife and I were together when we saw it,” Owens, 57, exclusively tells PEOPLE. “It made me think of my son. I texted my son and warned him about the story breaking. I actually apologized to him for embarrassing him, because I knew that he’s in school away from us. I knew his classmates would see it and he’d be humiliated and embarrassed. I apologized to him.”
Adding, “Even before the wave of support rolled in within an hour or two, he sent me a beautiful text back about how proud he was of me. I cried, I just broke down. He felt the opposite of embarrassment. He was so proud that I had taken the job. It was beautiful.”
“With my wife’s support and my son’s reactions, all before the counter-reaction came in, I felt very supported and loved. Then, the encouragement from all over the world started to come in and that was unbelievable and overwhelming.”
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Though the actor says the attention he’s been receiving since the photo was published by some tabloids has been overwhelming, he’s grateful for the support.
“It really hurt,” Owens says of the photo. “I felt really humiliated. From the time that I heard that the article might be done to the time it came out, I tried to envision the worse case scenario just to prepare myself and then it was just a little bit worse. If that was possible. They went out of their way to find the very worst picture of me, in the worst shirt and the worst posture. The words they used to describe me were so demeaning. It hurt.”
But, Owens hasn’t allowed that hurt to hold him down.
“I’ve learned to never give up,” he says. “A lot of times I was on the verge of quitting the job at Trader Joe’s, but I didn’t because I couldn’t. But it was sufficiently awkward and uncomfortable to be in that kind of job recognized from time to time. For me to want to get out of it, I wanted to leave at times even though I was grateful for it as work. But if I had done that, none of this would’ve happened.
“It’s because I kind of hung in there and persevered that all of this amazing stuff has now happened. I am someone who generally does persevere, but this confirmed to me how important it is to just hang in there. I think that’s so important for so many people in my industry. You just have to hang on!”
Owens played Elvin Tibideaux on The Cosby Show from 1985 to 1992. He has since appeared on a number of shows, including Divorce, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Built to Last.