Alexander Cohen, a legendary theatrical producer known for bringing quality plays to Broadway for six decades, died on April 22 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was 79.
Cohen was one of the last of a dying breed of producer. For one, since breaking into the business in the early 1940s, he produced solely on Broadway. Secondly, until recently, his was the only name above the title -- unheard of today when high costs typically demand a herd of producers to bring a show to New York.
He is currently represented on Broadway by the Noel Coward play, Waiting in the Wings, starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris -- a typical Cohen production in that is was a straight play by a well-regarded author and boasted a cast of redoubtable actors. Over his career, Cohen produced work by authors such as David Storey, Jules Feiffer, Dario Fo, Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller, as well as revivals of Shakespeare, O’Neill, Webster and Chekhov. Among the stars he worked with (often several times) were Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Angela Lansbury, Zero Mostel, Burgess Meredith, Robert Morley, James Stewart and Peter Ustinov.
In addition to his extensive work on Broadway, Cohen was for two decades closely associated with the television program that most celebrates the theatre: the Tony Awards. He originated the Tony Award telecasts in 1967 and for 20 years produced the annual event. According to his account, expressed in a autobiographical one-man show he performed Off-Broadway in 1998, he himself secured the Tony’s place on CBS through a personal connection at the network.
He and his wife, Hildy Parks, who survives him, co-produced the Tonys, as well as three “Night of 100 Stars” telecasts, in 1982, 1985 and 1990. He won an Emmy Award for the first. Cohen’s first play as producer was a flop, but his next proved a cash cow. That was Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton, which ran for years and provided Cohen with the money to continue in his chosen profession. Many of his future projects would not prove so lucrative; indeed, Cohen was often accused of being a snob producer, getting behind plays simply because he thought they were good, and disregarding their commercial potential. His most recent ventures, Taking Sides, Sacrilege and The Herbal Bed -- projects few other producers would have undertaken -- had extremely short runs.
That is not to say he didn’t have his share of hits and notable shows. Cohen was behind the famous 1960s Hamlet starring Richard Burton, a phenomenon of its time. He produced David Storey’s Home starring Gielgud and Richardson. He worked with the same two actors in a revival of The School For Scandal, and Gielgud and Vivien Leigh in Chekhov’s Ivanov. (His fondness for English actors and plays was evident throughout his life.)
Not every Cohen play was a serious, high-toned venture. He produced two of the most important sketch comedy shows in the history of Broadway: An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May and Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. He also backed Good Evening, starring Cook and Moore.
Among his 101 productions were: Harold Pinter’s drama The Homecoming; Jules Feiffer's Little Murders; Peter Brook’s Tony Award-winning La Tragedie de Carmen; Anna Christie staring Liv Ullmann, directed by Jose Quintero; Comedians by Trevor Griffiths, directed by Mike Nichols; James Joyce's Ulysses in Nighttown starring Zero Mostel; Angela Lansbury in Dear World; Dario Fo's Accidental Death of An Anarchist; Long Day's Journey Into Night and Ah, Wilderness, both starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst; Maurice Chevalier at 77; and Marlene Dietrich. He also produced extensively in London.
Cohen was a consummate character. He was known for dressing well and living well. Independent and irascible, he told people what he thought in a gravelly, gruff voice and in no uncertain terms. In his one-man show, he had kind words for Chevalier; rough ones for Dietrich and Jerry Lewis. He also told of his long-standing feud with producer David Merrick, another maverick of the Broadway scene. One sensed, however, through the grouchy facade, a sincere love of the fight and a devotion to the theatre. A workaholic until the day he died, Cohen was known to be negotiating for his next Broadway play as recently as a week ago.
He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Hildy Parks, his daughter, Barbara Hoffmann, his sons, Christopher and Gerry, his grandson Brock Pernise, and great granddaughter Mia. A private service will be held this week. A public memorial service will be announced shortly.
-- By Robert Simonson