Requiem for A Heavyweight
TIME: Spectator Column – September 6, 1993
Requiem for A Heavyweight
In Sam Cohn’s show-business realm, the good old days keep on ending
SHOW PEOPLE SLOUGH OFF THEIR OLD agents all the time. If your career is suddenly on the ascent, you need to sign with a big-time handler who can fully exploit your new aura. And if your career is foundering — needless to say, through absolutely no fault of your own — you’ve got to find the suitably aggressive new handler who can persuade executives that your aura is undimmed. , It’s just the way the industry works.
However, when the powerful director Mike Nichols (who, at 61, epitomizes a certain Manhattan strain of cool, cerebral show-business class) dumps his long-time agent, the legendary Sam Cohn (who, at 64, epitomizes a certain Manhattan strain of cerebral, relentlessly colorful show-business class) in favor of the powerful Creative Artists Agency wunderkind Jay Maloney (who, at 28 — 28! — epitomizes a certain L.A. strain of clear-headed, buttoned-down, reassuringly colorless show-business class), the switch seems emblematic of larger, longer-running shifts in the way movies and plays get produced.
Ah, Sam Cohn. It is astonishing how recently (that is, during Jay Maloney’s teenage years) Cohn was singularly powerful. Indeed, he was the first superagent of the modern age, a forerunner of Maloney’s boss Mike Ovitz as a finger-in-every-pie packager who represented the writer and the director and the stars of a given production. Deep into the 1980s, Cohn had an impressive plurality of the stars and filmmakers with claims to blue-chip seriousness: Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Robert Altman, Bob Fosse, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Nichols and so many more. Cohn got Columbia Pictures to pay an astonishing $9.5 million for the movie rights to the Broadway musical Annie, a record that will probably never be broken. In New York’s big-time legitimate theater, Cohn’s hegemony was almost complete, his power inescapable. During a couple of early-’80s seasons, Cohn was involved in the Broadway productions of “Nine,” Noises Off, The Real Thing, Sunday in the Park with George and A Moon for the Misbegotten, among others.
But nearly his entire decade-ago pantheon of movie clients have, one by one, left him. Lumet and Allen remain, but neither director is any longer someone whose films the smart set feels obliged to see, and neither has had a hit since — well, since before Sam Cohn’s influence ebbed. In 1991 a New York- based movie star signed with Cohn’s agency — but with the understanding she would not work with Cohn. And Broadway, the classier-than-thou underpinning of his Hollywood power in his heyday, is no longer much of a creative epicenter; only two straight plays are currently running.
Cohn’s ostentatious snobbery (he slags Hollywood at every opportunity) and quirks (he eats paper, he doesn’t return phone calls) have been finally more self-defeating than charming. And while talented performers and directors can ^ remain willfully removed from the West L.A. schmoozathon, in this day and age an agent really cannot.
During preproduction on Wolf, Nichols’ forthcoming movie starring Jack Nicholson, a source close to the director says that when Nichols encountered serious impediments — Nicholson wouldn’t commit, Columbia wouldn’t approve the budget — Cohn did not quietly throw his weight around and fix everything, Ovitzishly. “Mike ((Nichols)) would try to reach Sam,” recalls the source, “and he’d have left the office for the night. And Mike couldn’t just call ((Columbia chairman)) Mark Canton and yell at him himself.” That’s what superagents are for.
But Sam Cohn’s shrinkage is not just a matter of his age, his distance from Wilshire Boulevard or his chronic breaches of etiquette. Rather, says a friend, “Sam was the king of artistic seriouness,” and the appetite for serious films — dark and downbeat, reeking of alienation — is not what it was. In 1993, would studios green-light Lumet’s Equus, Allen’s Interiors, Altman’s Quintet or Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge? Cohn was a power broker during the decade or two when every movie director was by definition an untouchable auteur. Nowadays even true auteurs such as Scorsese are kept on rather short leashes, indulged their expensive artistic visions not much beyond one or two failures.
The late, occasionally great age of high-priced show-biz seriousness is over. Cohn will generate a zillion dollars in commissions this year, but he will earn it off pleasant trifles like Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle and Manhattan Murder Mystery — in which the main characters are habitues of Elaine’s, Woody’s Upper East Side hangout that was the hottest restaurant on earth during exactly the period when Sam Cohn was the hottest agent. The glorious moment for a certain cliquishly upper-middle-brow Manhattan high life — back when Saturday Night Live and Vanity Fair were brand new, back before AIDS and Soon-Yi — has passed