Alexander H Cohen
Just months before Alexander H Cohen died at the age of 79, Variety identified him in its millennium issue as one of the 10 most important producers of the 20th Century. Having worked in show business nearly six decades, Cohen produced 101 plays and musicals on Broadway and in London's West End. Among them were some of the most beloved shows--and some of the biggest flops--in theater history.
Coming from a wealthy family and fairly successful in his television producing ventures, Cohen was not as worried about penny-pinching as were some of his contemporaries. What mattered most to Cohen was giving venues to what he thought were unique and interesting shows. How else can one explain "Prettybelle", a musical comedy that starred Angela Lansbury as a mental patient? (It mercifully died before it got to Broadway.) Cohen's philosophy was simple: he didn't mind taking a financial risk if he personally liked a show.
Outspoken and stubborn, Cohen described his career in theater this way: "My considerations have never been financial. A flop in my head is a show or experience I didn't care for. And a hit in my head is something I enjoyed doing very much. You'd be surprised how many of my flops have been hits and hits flops."
According to theater critics his best work on Broadway included "Beyond the Fringe" (1962) with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, "Hamlet" (1964), starring Richard Burton under the direction of John Gielgud, and Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" (1967). Two of his biggest successes in London were Arthur Miller's "The Price" and Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite", both of which he produced in 1969. The success of these plays support claims that Cohen was a master at discovering talent in England and importing it to the USA and vice versa. He also wowed audiences and critics with a string of popular, intimate entertainments such as "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May", and concert engagements starring Marlene Dietrich, Yves Montand, Victor Borge and Maurice Chevalier during the 1960s.
Equally memorable, however, were plays and musicals for which reviewers blasted Cohen. Productions in this category include "Rugantino", (1964) the first--and last--Italian musical comedy anyone ever tried to bring to the New York stage and "Hellzapoppin'" (1977), another expensive turkey that Cohen never quite lived down. The show starred a reportedly very uncooperative Jerry Lewis and closed before it made it to Broadway. It is said to have cost Cohen $2 million.
Cohen's interests were not confined to the stage, however. He was also intrigued by television, and in 1967 he found a way to marry the two passions, and spend time with his wife, writer/actress Hildy Parks. The pair created the Tony telecast and produced the first 20 televised awards shows. In addition to that, Cohen created and produced three splashy TV specials called "Night of 100 Stars" in the 1980s, the first of which won him an Emmy.
Born in NYC, Cohen was the elder son of a businessman, who died when Cohen was four. His mother remarried a banker and the family lived in a Park Avenue duplex for most of his early life. Cohen enjoyed a privileged childhood, with an uncle taking him to the theater every week. Later, he attended New York and Columbia universities and, upon leaving school, embarked on a career as the director of advertising and publicity for the Bulova Watch Company. It was then that Cohen began to dabble in producing theater, but he kept his day job for years just in case the producing gig didn't pan out.
Cohen's career took off, however, when he served as an associate producer of the successful Victorian melodrama, "Angel Street" in 1941. The production was the basis for the 1944 American film, "Gaslight", which starred Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Cohen's decision to keep his job at Bulova proved to be a wise one as none of his other shows in the 1940s were as successful as "Angel Street", He spent most of the 50s scouting London theaters for productions to import to New York and enjoyed one of his biggest successes of the decade when he brought the Flanders and Swann revue, "At the Drop of a Hat", from London to Broadway in 1959.
It wasn't until the 60s that Cohen really seemed to come into his own as a producer. In addition to backing shows for theaters in both the United States and England, he also produced the Tony Awards telecasts, and supervised the building of, booked and managed the 3,100-seat O'Keefe Center in Toronto from 1960 to 1963. That last endeavor was seen by some as a failure on Cohen's part, since, as one critic put it, the Canadian theater was "one of the most charmless and problematic venues in North America".
Despite his hectic schedule, Cohen still found time to serve as a vice president and member of the board of governors of the League of New York Theatres and Producers; vice president and trustee of the Actor's Fund of America and a member of the Friars Club. He resigned his post in the League in 1985. He stopped producing the Tonys telecasts in 1987 after a falling out with the American Theater Wing.
In the mid-80s, Cohen tried his hand at movie acting, playing--what else?--a producer in Woody Allen's film "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985). Why Cohen was cast in the movie was easy to understand: With his fancy cars and clothes, and larger-than-life personality, he looked and acted just the way people would expect a movie producer would. That wasn't the only time Cohen decided to be in the show instead of just running it. In 1998, he wrote, produced and starred in his own one-man, off-Broadway show called "Star Billing", where he offered insights he'd gathered in his decades in the theater industry. Lawrence Van Gelder, the critic who reviewed the show for The New York Times wrote: "Cohen proves himself a splendid anecdotist with a highly developed sense of comic timing. He has many a kind word for his friends and an arsenal of well-honed, acid-tipped barbs for those he loathes among them David Merrick, Marlene Dietrich and Jerry Lewis."
Cohen produced his last play, "Waiting in the Wings" in 1999. Starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, this marked the first time the Noel Coward play had been staged on Broadway. At the time of his death, Cohen had been planning to produce "Sweet Deliverance", a comic play about euthanasia that was to star Fran Drescher ("The Nanny"). He was also embroiled in an arbitration with the League of New York Theaters and Producers, trying to secure the rights to the Tony Awards broadcasts that he produced.