Sam Cohn, Powerful Talent Agent, Dies at 79

Obituaries   Sam Cohn, Powerful Talent Agent, Dies at 79
Sam Cohn, one of the most powerful talents agents of the last quarter of the twentieth century, and the forerunner of the game-controlling super agents that came into their own in the 1980s and 1990s, died May 6 in Manhattan. He was 79.

Thanks to his impressive roster of clients, and a lengthy 1982 profile in the New Yorker, Sam Cohn was one of the few agents whose name was known not only to the entertainment community, but to members of the general public. His status as a showbiz power broker bordered on the mythical. He handled leading talents in both film and theatre. Those whose careers he shaped included actors Meryl Streep, Liza Minnelli, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Hume Cronyn, Zero Mostel, Dianne Wiest, Kathleen Turner; directors Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Arthur Penn, Woody Allen; playwrights Steve Tesich, Peter Stone, John Guare, Arthur Miller; and the songwriters Elizabeth Swados, John Kander and Fred Ebb. A rival agent once said, "When in doubt, assume that Sam Cohn is involved somehow."

His unorthodox insistence on being based in New York—he detested Los Angeles and often derided it—allowed him to split his focus almost equally between the film and theatre worlds. He controlled so many top artists, that he often helped to put together entire projects, furnished the writer, director and actors—a practice that is common among agents today, but was unusual when he started it in the mid-70s. The New Yorker article stated that, in 1981, ten movies and nine Broadway or Off-Broadway plays featuring Mr. Cohn's clients opened. Among the plays were The Floating Light Bulb, Foxfire, Beyond Therapy, Woman of the Year, Grown Ups, Annie, Dancin’ and Amadeus. He was held in awe by colleagues for getting Columbia Pictures to pay a record $9.5 million for the movie rights to the Broadway musical "Annie."

Mr. Cohn, who was born May 11, 1929, in Altoona, PA, was a man of high intelligence and many quirks, some of them endearing, some of them highly irritating. He eschewed the sharp suits and loud sports jackets of his professional brethren in favor of old sweaters and white wool socks. He removed the buckles from his Gucci loafers with a razor blade. He did business in an aggressive, staccato voice that many people found difficult to breach. Mr. Cohn was known to nibble on scraps of paper—scripts, newspapers, napkins, tissues—when lost in thought. Often, he robbed himself of important information he had written down through this habit. More famously—and most aggravating to those who sought his attendance, be they producers or studio heads or members of the press—was his almost pathological disinclination to return phone calls. Those truly desperate to find him, however, knew he kept a regular lunch table at the Russian Tea Room, and favored a steak joint named Wally’s for dinner. (An industry joke described Sam Cohn’s gravestone as reading “Here lies Sam Cohn. He’ll get back to you.”)

Mr. Cohn was accustomed to taking the commanding role in any situation. He was so notorious for appropriating the host’s chair when taking a meeting in someone else’s office, that it was said that former Shubert President Bernard Jacobs would always keep his seat whenever the agent entered his office, fearing he would lose it by getting up.

Gerald Schoenfeld, Jacobs' partner at the Shubert Organization, said, "Sam gets away with more than anybody else I know can get away with. He does more what he wants to do when he wants to do it and in the way he wants to do it than anybody I know and gets away with it." Sam Cohn was prized by his clients not only for his business acumen and his ability to get them the best deal possible, but because he revered artists and felt protective. He often said he chose his profession because he wanted to be "on the side of the artists." Clients would refer to him as paternal.

Sam Cohn attended a military school in Indiana as a teenager. He went to college at Princeton and law school at Yale. His road to becoming an agent began when he became the lawyer for a small talent agency, General Artists Corporation. Mr. Cohn arranged for its purchase by a group of investors, and they installed him as one of the managers, according to the New York Times. In 1968 General Artists merged with a larger agency, Creative Management Associates. In 1974 the agency was bought out by Marvin Josephson Associates, which controlled a talent agency, the International Famous Agency. With the merger, I.C.M. was created.

Mr. Cohn was married three times. He is survived by his wife, Jane Gelfman; a daughter, Marya Cohn of Manhattan and Amsterdam; a son, Peter Cohn, a filmmaker who lives in the Bronx; and four grandchildren.

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