The veteran agent was just a few days shy of his 80th birthday. He had suffered an illness yet only recently retired from ICM. During his more than 3 decades at ICM, he represented top actors, directors, writers, playwrights, and composers. His clients including Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Marshall Brickman, E.L. Doctorow, Nora Ephron, Bob Fosse, Jackie Gleason, John Guare, Kander & Ebb, Peter Maas, Arthur Miller, Paul Newman, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Peter Stone, Meryl Streep, Steve Tesich, Lily Tomlin, Kathleen Turner, Sigourney Weaver and Dianne Wiest, among many others.
Rarely has there been a more interesting and powerful and eclectic and irascible tenpercenter in Hollywood history. I once spent a week in and out of his NYC office interviewing him, so I’ll try now to explain why.
The wealthy scion of his grandfather and father’s Independent Oil Company fortune, which the family sold to Standard Oil in the 1930s, Cohn had grown up in the very un-Jewish outback of Altoona, Pennsylvania. At 14, he was sent to Culver Military Academy in Indiana, where the school’s motto was “Culver educates the whole boy.” Cohn did not thrive in the army life and graduated pretty much where he started, Private First Class, before moving on to Princeton and eventually Yale Law School. After a brief stint in legal affairs at William Paley’s CBS, Cohn joined Herb Siegel’s GAC in 1963 and eventually was given his first client, Jackie Gleason, which called more for stamina than negotiation. Gleason, of course, was a notorious drinker, and Cohn found himself having to babysit his client. “I remember sitting at the 21 Club with him during the day and he’d be absolutely plastered,” Cohn once recalled to me. “He was leaning back in the booth, his eyes closed, and growling, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.’”
With the TV business centered in New York, Cohn repped GAC’s Irwin Allen and such variety clients as Kraft Music Hall. Gradually, the agent began moving into the theater and taking on promising new directors like Larry Pierce and Peter Yates and then Woody Allen, Bob Fosse and Mike Nichols.
Lore has it that Herb Siegal made a run at Paramount and wanted Sam to run it. Instead, Cohn helped talk Marty Baum into supporting the sale of GAC to Freddie Fields’ and David Begelman’s arch-rival CMA even though Baum was vehemently opposed to diluting his Hollywood power. But Cohn realized that GAC would always be an also-ran among the big agencies unless something dramatic was done. As smart as he was arrogant, Cohn couldn’t help wanting to be with No. 1, even if it meant sharing power with his nemesis in New York, David Begelman. The negotiations between GAC and CMA were so nerve-wracking that Cohn would come home every night and throw up.
By the time GAC and CMA merged, Cohn was then instrumental in engineering the beginning of ICM in 1975 and headed the agency’s New York office for almost 25 years. He also helped put Jeff Berg in charge of the new agency when the New Yorker threw his support behind the young president who was leapfrogging heir apparent Guy McElwaine (whom Cohn feared wouldn’t be as malleable as his protege).
After Sam signed up most of the New York theater circuit, he made history when he represented producers Mike Nichols and Lewis Allen and set up the deal for the Broadway play Annie, which cost $800,000 and made $20 million during its six-year run. Then Cohn began to focus on the movie side of the biz. As a New Yorker profile observed, “In 1981, ten feature films and nine Broadway or Off Broadway plays opened that were written, directed or produced by one of his clients or in which a Cohn client had a major acting role.” The agent became known for talent spotting. He found a dancer-actress named Whoopi Goldberg who had spent most of her life in Northern California on state assistance until Cohn spotted her in a small workshop and signed her on the spot. He found Cher, written off by the cognoscenti, doing Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, at the Martin Beck theater, felt she had the makings of a serious actress, and signed on the spot. He saw recent Yale theater department grad Meryl Streep performing in a small theater performance of The Cherry Orchardand took her away from one of ICM’s own young agents.
For decades, the so-called “Mayor of New York” held court lunchtime at his right front table in the old Russian Tea Room, just a stroll west on Fifty-Seventh Street from his office. He attended the opera or the theater or the symphony every night of the week, then dined at Wally’s, a steak house in the same eight block area of the rest of his worklife. His office walls were covered with movie and theatrical posters dedicated to the packages he had put together. On one wall hung a Hirschfeld caricature of Cohn as an orphaned moppet, complete with pinafore, curly wig, and Sandi the dog. In reality, Cohn was short and baggy, dressed in Tilled Shetland crewneck sweaters in ice cream colors like mint and butterscotch paired with navy or gray slacks, cuffed to show two inches of flesh between white athletic socks and the frayed edges of the trousers and his black loafers. (He would remove the Gucci buckles using a razor blade).
Cohn was not in the biz for the fame or fortune: he considered himself a facilitator of the arts rather than an agent salesman. He spent hours hashing out parts and dissecting scripts with clients, while the phone messages from crazed colleagues out in Los Angeles piled up on his desk. Sue Mengers once described him as an “agent auteur,” only half jokingly. Not many agents could claim they saw a client’s film 24 times, but that’s what Sam did for Robert Altman or Bob Fosse. “He would basically become a collaborative partner to these artists, and fight the studios when they said they wanted change,” notes Marty Bauer, the UTA co-founder who was Cohn’s Business Affairs attorney in the old days. “That’s why he flirted many times with being a producer. He wanted to be involved creatively. But Sam always knew that all these clients, who were his close friends, might not be there for him as a producer.”
After decades in the business, Cohn knew everyone worth knowing. And he used those contacts with an almost obsessive singlemindedness when it came to finding work for his clients. He was notorious for suddenly fixating on the career of one or two actors and then, for the next week, pushing them onto colleagues, producers, casting directors and studio heads for every role he heard of, no matter how inappropriate. If it was Mia Farrow, then Cohn would suggest Mia for every script that crossed his desk that week, whether it was a 70-year-old black grandmother or a 17-year-old white teenager. Once, after receiving the weekly project reports from L.A. once, Cohn called ICM agent Hildy Gottlieb in Los Angeles and complained, “I’m looking up the minutes and I don’t see Mia’s name down here.” Tired of listening to him kvetch, the following week Gottlieb sent Cohn the list being cast by the studios and the agency’s recommendations; next to every single role, including men, dogs, cats, sheep and owls, was Mia’s name.
Like Freddie and David before him, the agent generated his own mythology, and Sam Cohn stories were repeated on both coasts. Screenwriter Nora Ephron even spoofed Cohn in her first directorial effort, This Is My Life, in which Dan Akroyd played a crewneck-wearing, khaki-clad agent whose notorious habit was Cohn’s — ripping up pieces of paper and chewing them into human cud. Sam was infamous for furiously scribbling deal memos on the backs of paper napkins. One time, the agent lost a deal when he accidentally ate the napkin. He was parody of himself, barking orders, doing five things at the same time, sitting behind his desk interviewing a new assistant and yelling out the door to his secretary to “Get me Mandy,” “Get me Towne,” while in one hand holding a drink and in the other waving a Kleenex, which, invariably, the agent would shred and pop in his mouth, then snap to his secretary, “What’s Towne doing on the phone, I want Meryl.” Though he at times appeared like a befuddled British professor, he was also a numbers guy who could do complex computations in his head just by closing his eyes to the amazement of his staff. High-strung and neurotic, Cohn saw a therapist every day which even his assistants laughed at behind his back. (“Can’t you tell he’s getting better?” one staffer sarcastically quipped to me). When not in therapy, the agent was known for killer hours at the office, often playing backgammon for money until 11 PM while fielding phone calls. Once a fire swept through Cohn’s floor in the New York ICM offices. The flames spread from the elevators into the offices. Forty agents and staff retreated into Marvin Josephson’s office and used the bathroom to wet down towels to put around their faces. The agents thought they were going to die. But the only one who didn’t panic was Cohn. “He was very brave,” recalled Bauer. “He assumed a leadership position. I was very impressed, especially because there was one guy above him in the corporate ladder who was standing in the corner wimpering.”
But inside ICM, the agent was also known as abusive to colleagues. He considered Business Affairs people as disposal as toilet paper. He could be imperious, insensitive and, at times, scathing. As someone who worked for him told me,
“Nobody could make you feel better; and nobody could make you feel worse. Back in the day, supposedly the two toughest people to work for were Barry Diller and Sam Cohn.” He was very demanding, expecting staff to know things they had no way of knowing. But he also taught them by example because of his undying belief in his clients. He represented great talents, and he loved them and was devoted to them. He was devoted to the system. He was not devoted to the buyer.
But Cohn’s eccentricities and attitudes became a serious internal problem. The agent made no secret of his contempt for Hollywood and rarely flew out to the West Coast. “I wouldn’t want to live in L.A. any more than I would want to live in Los Alamos,” Cohn quipped. When forced to travel to L.A., he would routinely spend as little time as possible: take the 4 PM flight from Kennedy and arrive at 10 PM, then catch the plane out the following afternoon. He once couldn’t get out of the LAX baggage area because he had eaten his claim check on the walk down from the plane. Once at the ICM headquarters, Cohn spent the majority of the day fuming about colleagues who acted more like “parking lot attendants to the stars” than agents, or the lavishly decorated offices which rated a “Hmmm, pretty tacky” response from him.
If an ICM agent out in Los Angeles needed a Cohn client for a package, forget it. He ran his own shop. Cohn packaged his own projects individually, without any interference from Los Angeles: Still Of The Night, Silkwood, The World According To Garp, Plenty, Breaking Away, Kramer Vs. Kramer, All that Jazz, and other films. But the younger ICM agents came to bitterly resent that Cohn would not only never lend them a helping hand but wouldn’t even speak to them. Many ICM’ers of that period believe that one of the reason Jim Wiatt rose within the agency (and ultimately to co-head ICM with Berg) was because he was one of the few LA-based agents who could get Sam on the phone with any regularity.
Sam’s refusal to return calls was almost pathological; eventually, Cohn stopped returning phone calls even from his own clients. Unreturned calls mounted into the hundreds. Some clients called 8, 9, 10 times a day, to no avail. One movie producer actually called Mike Nichols while the director was vacationing in Paris to ask him to call Cohn back in New York and persuade the agent to phone the producer in L.A. When the agent signed Cher’s then live-in boyfriend, unknown actor Val Kilmer, it took six months before Sam got on the phone. One time, when I asked Cohn why he refused to return phone calls, the agent simply shrugged and said: “I hate giving bad news.” But the obdurate silence became much more serious than just a personality tick. It was cited as one of the biggest management problems at ICM by a consultant’s report about why the agency was so dysfunctional: “In the last five years, I’ve never been able to get Sam Cohn on the phone,” castigated one anonymous agent in the report. “With the exception of Sam Cohn, everyone is responsive,” chided another. “Sam Cohn is an empire unto himself,” complained a third.
Another problem was that Cohn, a lawyer himself, refused to work with the rising tide of entertainment attorneys, cutting them out of the dealmaking process whenever he could, and gathering a great store of personal enmity not only for himself but for ICM. Cohn in particular butted heads repeatedly with Barry Hirsch. The running feud became so bad that, at one point, Hirsch, Cohn and various lieutenants finally met to broker a peace conference, which was ended before it even began when Cohn imperiously informed Hirsch that “deals are the province of the agent and not of the lawyer.”
As more and more top showbiz attorneys allied themselves with CAA, and that agency became a powerhouse, it was inevitable that it would target Cohn. In fact, the partners had decided against opening a New York office precisely because of the threat posed by a satellite nation like Sam Cohn. Besides, they knew they could never hope to compete with the agent on his own turf. So CAA co-founder Ron Meyer courted Sam’s clients from Malibu. For months and months, Meyer talked up CAA and talked down Cohn: the ICM agent was not responsive to clients; he wouldn’t return phone calls, he wasn’t plugged into the Hollywood studios. In just over a year, Ron Meyer stole Whoopi, Cher and Jessica Lange from Cohn.
The truth is that Cohn never recovered professionally from the CAA onslaught. He remained a legendary agent but never again a showbiz powerhouse. The entertainment industry will never see his kind again.