After 100 Broadway shows, 40 television specials and 78 years on this planet, producer Alexander H. Cohen is finally learning what it's like to be a performer.
The legendary deal maker is appearing at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater in a one-man show, Star Billing , in which he reflects on his 57-year theatrical career. And, while he's still in previews (opening night is set for November 9), he's already developed quite an empathy for theatre actors. "All these years I've said, 'I don't know why that actor can't do eight performances a week,' " he marvels. "It's exhausting me to do two."
Cohen recalls a recent preview of Star Billing which annoyingly interrupted his evening schedule. "I was watching the 'MacNeil Lehrer Report,' which I'm always interested in, and at 7:15, I had to stop so I could get to the theatre. I was infuriated!" he says with a laugh. "So I understood. In the past, when I'd be in the theatre and an actor walked in after half hour, I'd say, 'My God! Where have you been, man?' When you're in the situation yourself, you begin to understand that everybody has a life."
Cohen, of course, has had quite a life. Since producing his first Broadway show, Angel Street , at the tender age of 20, he's worked with such disparate luminaries as Mike Todd, Billy Rose, Richard Burton, and Vivian Leigh. He's produced vehicles for Maurice Chevalier (of whom he speaks highly) and Marlene Dietrich (of whom he doesn't). He's orchestrated the Broadway debuts of countless performers, including Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lynn Redgrave and Michael Crawford. He's treated New York audiences to plays like Harold Pinter's Tony Award-winning The Homecoming , Jules Feiffer's Little Murders , Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Peter Schaffer's Black Comedy . He conceived the Tony Award telecasts in 1967 and continued to produce them for 20 years. And, perhaps most impressively, he was able to convince Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro to dance in a chorus line for the televised benefit, "Night of 100 Stars."
The idea for Star Billing , he says, originated a few years ago. "I'd tell a lot of these stories over dinner parties, and somebody said to me, 'Why don't you write a book?' So, I started to write a book, and I found out I couldn't write. But I also found out, I guess from my friends, that the stories are entertaining when they're told. "So, one evening I was asked to do 35 or 40 minutes for a benefit," he continues. "I got up and told stories, and I felt comfortable with it. Everybody said, 'You ought to write a book.' And I said, 'I tried doing that, and I'm not really a writer.' Then, I did it at the Promenade Theater about a year and a half ago, in extended length. It ran about three hours, and everyone was exhausted from that. But they all came back and said, 'You know, you ought to write a book.' So, I tried again. This time I worked with a very established and wonderful writer. We started the pages, and I found out that trying to write a book is impossible for me."
Cutting down his wealth of experience into 90 minutes of stage time was not impossible, however, thanks to the guidance of Star Billing 's producers, Jeffrey Ash, Eric Krebs and Anne Strickland Squadron: "They were really helpful, and they kept forcing me to reduce the time and reduce the time and reduce the time."
Cohen packs quite a bit of juicy information into that reduced running time, detailing his most successful working relationship (with his wife, Hildy Parks, who was the sole writer on all of his TV specials) and his least (with Jerry Lewis in the disastrous Hellzapoppin' ), and revealing myriad brushes with greatness and not-so-greatness that have marked his life in theatre and television.
Still, he has stories left to tell. "There are so many experiences that don't even get mentioned in the show," he says. "I figure I'll get even [with the producers] a year from now, and do a second version and tell the rest of it."
Or, he could always write a book.
--Alison Sloane Gaylin