Obit: Agent Sam Cohn

Legendary agent Sam Cohn, who cast a large shadow over the agency business as a whole and ICM in particular, died Wednesday in New York following a brief illness. He was 79. Cohn, who retired from ICM in February, had a list of clients over the years that was unmatched. Names included Meryl Streep, Woody Allen, […]

Last Updated: September 22, 2010 @ 6:31 PM

Legendary agent Sam Cohn, who cast a large shadow over the agency business as a whole and ICM in particular, died Wednesday in New York following a brief illness. He was 79.

Cohn, who retired from ICM in February, had a list of clients over the years that was unmatched. Names included Meryl Streep, Woody Allen, Susan Sarandon, Robert Altman, Paul Newman, Mike Nichols and Sigourney Weaver.

His role on Broadway was also significant, having represented influential stage talent like Bob Fosse, Arthur Miller and Arthur Penn.

Cohn started off in 1963 at General Artists Corp., which eventually merged with Creative Management Associates. In 1975, Cohn helped to merge CMA with Intl. Famous Agency, where other top agents like Marvin Josephson, Freddie Fields and Sue Mengers worked.

After ICM was founded, Cohn stayed on the East Coast and ran the agency's New York office for almost 25 years.

Cohn has been a major stockholder at ICM until recently, and last year he cashed out an ownership stake worth millions when ICM recapitalized with investor Suhail Rizvi and Merrill Lynch in 2005.

Born in Altoona, Pa., Cohn graduated from Princeton and Yale Law School. He began his career in the business affairs department of CBS.

He is survived by his wife, Jane Gelfman; son Peter Cohn, a filmmaker; daughter Marya Cohn; and four grandchildren.

In other tributes to Cohn, Bruce Weber wrote in the New York Times:  

Mr. Doctorow, a client since the mid-1970s, said Mr. Cohn’s distinction as an agent was that “he worshiped creative people, was in awe of creative minds.”

“It wasn’t just a money thing for him,” Mr. Doctorow said. “It was about the quality of the project and its potential. I wrote a play called ‘Drinks Before Dinner,’ and Sam got Mike Nichols to direct, and Chris Plummer signed on. We did it at the Public Theater” — in 1978 — “and it was all Sam’s work. He was virtually the producer of the play, and he loved to give his opinion: ‘This line is wrong. That has to change.’ ”

Mr. Cohn cut a unique figure in the entertainment business. For one thing, he was a confirmed New Yorker who hated Los Angeles, avoided traveling there whenever possible and, when he couldn’t avoid it, got out as soon as possible. For another, he loved theater and didn’t think of it as merely something an actor or director did between movies.

On Deadline Hollywood Daily, Nikki Finke wrote: 

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 movie 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. His speech was nonstop staccato, puntuated by short laughs followed by a long wheezing sound. In person, 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 his incongruous white athletic socks and the frayed edges of the trousers and his black loafers (he would remove the Gucci buckles using a razor blade).

And the New Yorker pulled up a profile of Cohn from 1982: 

The reality of Cohn clashes with the stereotype of the mythical show-business agent—particularly the Hollywood variety. It is no coincidence that Cohn does not think Los Angeles is a fun place. Whenever duty forces him to spend time there, he burns a fair number of calories complaining about the programming on the local classical-music radio station or making caustic remarks about the “the parking-lot attendants to the stars” or visiting friends in their carefully decorated offices at the studios and saying things like “Hmm, pretty tack” and “I get such an up feeling here” According to the stereotype, most agents are named Morty and Marty and go around wearing shirts that show off their chest hair and saying things like, “We’ll max it at three hundred thou.” A friend of Cohn’s, intending to be flattering, said not long ago, “Sam’s success reminds me of what Karl Marx said about John Stuart Mill—that ‘his eminence is due n large part to the flatness of the terrain.’” Praising Cohn’s intellect, Jeff Berg, the president of I.C.M., has called him “the Adlai Stevenson of the agency business.”

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