David Cohn opens the door of his fashionable Overland Park villa on a cold and blustery day, the kind of bleak winter morning that encourages even the hardiest of souls to consider retreating post haste to the California sunshine. Cohn is dressed in a stylish sweater and is well-groomed and pearly-teethed; his welcoming demeanor belies the battlefield on which he spent 37 years, claiming, defending and expanding his turf: Hollywood.
The Johnson County native–he graduated in 1971 from Shawnee Mission East–returned to the land of the four seasons, KU and KSU basketball and genuine handshakes in 2009.
Much to Cohn’s delight, he’s in love with a town that lives life normally.
“In Hollywood, if you’re in the industry, it’s tough to keep it real,” says Cohn, adding that he had more than one knife stuck in his back during his tenure in Tinseltown. “I lived my professional life wondering if people liked me for me and not what I could do for them as a person. It’s hard not to personalize that kind of behavior.”
Cohn graduated from Occidental College, a private liberal arts school in Los Angeles, in the mid-1970s. He roomed for a year with Peter Scolari, a budding actor from New Rochelle, New York, who went on to co-star in drag with a then-unknown Tom Hanks on a sitcom called “Bosom Buddies.”
Happy burger days
Cohn’s long-held notion of being a child star slowly faded as his teenage years waned. Surpassing that Shirley Temple pipedream, he decided to choose between pursuing an adult acting career in New York or LA.
“Actors–unless you’re wildly successful–can lead a pretty miserable life,” says Cohn, half kidding, half serious–a self-deprecating sense of humor that punctuates the interview. “I decided to stay in LA where at least I would be warm.”
Anxious to jumpstart his career, Cohn studied professionally with Gordon Hunt, a respected director and acting coach and father of actress Helen Hunt. Cohn connected with Gordon and considers him his mentor.
Commercial work commenced Cohn’s acting career. He introduced the famous Jack in the Box Jumbo Jack burger to fast-food hungry America and describes the shooting as nothing less than excruciating.
“The script required me to take a bite from the monster burger,” says Cohn “You had to be careful because stylists shellacked the burger so it looked good on camera. There were 80 takes of that spot, so I took 80 bites from 80 burgers and spit each one into a bucket between takes.”
Needless to say, Cohn lost his appetite for burgers.
A young, lanky Cohn auditioned for the part of the iconic Fonz; he received a callback–along with hundreds of others–for the role of the leather-jacketed, suave, Mrs. Cunningham-patronizing character from “Happy Days.”
“I really thought they’d made a mistake,” laughs Cohn. “I thought I’d done a horrible job, and besides, I’m not exactly the typical guy for that part.”
Of course television history shows that an actor named Henry Winkler made the Fonz a household name. Cohn moved on and was cast as a dorm nerd who was antagonistic to the boys in “Delta House,” a series spin-off of the blockbuster “Animal House” that starred many of the same actors.
In true Hollywood form, the producers loved Cohn and cast him as a recurring character on the show–the very same day the series was cancelled.
Writing on the wall
Cohn knew he was a good actor but also knew he’d never be great. “Acting is like hitting your head against a brick wall,” says Cohn slyly. “It feels good when you stop.”
Determined to remain in Hollywood–after all, the bug bit him–Cohn worked as a second assistant to casting director Carole Cherry whose connections ran deep in a town where it mattered. “Her first husband was chairman of the board of 20th Century Fox,” says Cohn. “Her second husband, Stanley, had been married to an Annenberg whose family owned TV Guide and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Carole and Stanley were a wonderfully unique couple who had a powerful business.”
During his stint with Cherry, Cohn worked on CBS “Movies of the Week” and with fledgling actors like Tom Selleck (who refused to shave off his Lloyds of London-worthy mustache for a role) and directors like Leo Penn (Sean’s dad).
Thrilled to have found his mojo in the casting world, Cohn, a self-described TV baby, went on to found–along with acting classmate Paul Bengston–one of the largest and top independent casting companies in LA, Bengston/Cohn & Associates. The duo covered diverse territory, including feature films, TV series and movies, in addition to Broadway and regional theatre and national commercials.
The episodic years
Cohn likes to say he sunk the “Love Boat” and burned the “Hotel,” referring to his casting work in the popular 1980s series.
“Our company cast the last year of executive producer Aaron Spelling’s ‘Love Boat,'” says Cohn. “The bloom was off the rose and Paul and I continually had to convince agents that it wouldn’t kill their clients to appear on it.”
In fact, the William Morris Agency sold Cohn an actor to appear on the “Love Boat.” The problem? The actor was actually dead.
“I told them they were charging too much for him,” laughs Cohn.
The year Bengston/Cohn & Associates handled “Love Boat” was a landmark for the series set aboard the fictitious Pacific Princess. In an attempt to hip up the sinking show, The Love Boat Mermaids, seven leggy dancers, were added to perform a musical number each week.
“We discovered Teri Hatcher [of ‘Desperate Housewives’ fame],” says Cohn. “She was the only mermaid that could dance, walk and speak.”
Cohn’s company also handled the landlocked version of the “Love Boat,” another Spelling saga that ran for nearly five years called “Hotel.” It starred a handsome James Brolin, a beautiful Connie Sellecca and a regal Anne Baxter who worked in a fictional San Francisco hotel. Of course the Spelling formula was apparent: A bit of romance, a smidgen of drama, a whisper of comedy.
Trick or treat
Bengston/Cohn & Associates moved into casting feature films, carving a niche in B-horror movies including the classic American franchise “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” series.
“We did part eight of ‘Friday the 13th,'” says Cohn. “It was ‘Jason Takes Manhattan.’ Plus we did ‘Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Meyers.'”
The company also moved into casting teen comedies, including the 1986 movie “My Chauffeur” which is remembered not for stellar acting, but for a box office scandal that clouded its release.
“The movie was released the same weekend as a little flick called ‘The Color Purple,'” explains Cohn. “It beat that blockbuster in receipts the opening weekend. Steven Spielberg wasn’t pleased that his movie was outperformed by ours and launched an investigation.”
It was discovered that “My Chauffeur” had executives who weren’t exactly honest when it came to reporting box office returns. That, says Cohn, was the beginning of an independent company that monitored budgets and the reporting of earnings in the industry.
Next stop on the Hollywood merry-go-round for the successful Bengston/Cohn collaboration was casting commercials. Included in the company’s repertoire was a six-month casting for a series of Wendy’s commercials that were on the heels of the classic “Where’s the beef?” concept. Many of the spots they cast won prestigious Clio awards and the Golden Lion awards at the Cannes Film Festival; suddenly Cohn discovered the joy of working with regular people and not actors.
“In commercial work you saw the same people and there was a rawness, a real quality to them that actors sometimes didn’t possess,” says Cohn. “We would have open calls and sometimes 2,000 hopefuls would show up.”
Cohn and Bengston cast more than 200 major award-winning campaigns for corporate powerhouses such as Coke, Pepsi, Ford, McDonald’s, GE, Coors and Toyota.
Cohn suffered a period of burnout after business partner Bengston left; his desire to do good movies and theatre caused him to step back and smell the coffee. He volunteered for Hollywood Supports, an organization founded in 1991 by then-CEO of Universal Pictures, Sid Sheinberg and then-head of 20th Century Fox, Barry Diller and fueled by star power with the likes of Barbra Streisand and David Geffen. It was the beginning of Hollywood’s awakening to the AIDS issue, homophobia in the workplace and lifestyle discrimination.
“AIDS was a death sentence at the time and carried a terrible stigma,” says Cohn. “I was chosen to be part of the taskforce that facilitated seminars for entertainment entities around the country.”
Cohn traveled to present three-hour-long workshops that informed and trained executives about what AIDS was–and wasn’t.
“I distinctly remember one large company in Atlanta where I had to work with 20 men and educate them about AIDS,” says Cohn. “When I walked into the lecture-style room they were all at the back, dressed in white shirts with pens in their pockets, thick black glasses–and arms crossed on their chests. It was hostile and cold.”
But Cohn knew he was doing something very important with his Hollywood Supports work.
“I gave a live presentation for HBO and its affiliates, and it’s in their permanent library,” says Cohn. “Prior to this everyone was treating what I did in Hollywood akin to curing a disease. It’s like if I didn’t make the right choice between casting Carol Channing or Charo in a ‘Love Boat’ role people will die.'”
Cohn pauses, his intentional sarcasm hanging in the air.
“I realized somewhere along the way that being raised in a Midwestern city did me a disservice,” says Cohn. “People here are much nicer, polite, caring. To survive and thrive in Hollywood you have to have the killer instinct. To me, my career and life out there weren’t life-affirming. They had become life-sucking.”
Cohn describes a scene permanently etched in his psyche. When Bengston/Cohn was casting for Spelling’s shows, he officed next to the casting director for “Dynasty.”
“We were friends,” says Cohn. “One day I walked by and he was viciously yelling and screaming to someone on the phone. I was dumbstruck and stood there until he finished. He said–very proudly–that he had made the agent on the other end cry. ‘Oh, that felt wonderful.'”
Cohn filed that away for future reference and when he was considering relocation to Johnson County, it was that scene that he mentally replayed. Before he came back to Oz, though, Cohn spent eight years managing talent like Nancy Allen, William Katt and Dennis Christopher and received producing credit for an independent romantic comedy that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, “Relax … It’s Just Sex.”
Today Cohn enjoys a more languid pace, reconnecting with friends and classmates, helping plan the Shawnee Mission East 40th reunion and consulting with local theatre luminaries Richard Carrothers and Dennis Hennessy of the New Theatre Restaurant. He also sings in the Heartland Men’s Chorus, works out at a gym, spends time with his father and family and enjoys suburban life.
“There are great restaurants here and an incredible quality of life–all for a fraction of the cost of living in Beverly Hills,” says Cohn.
By Hollywood standards David Cohn had a very successful career. He won awards, discovered talent, worked with some of entertainment’s biggest names, made friends and a name. He had a life, well-lived.
But at the end of the day, in Central Standard Time, in the Heartland, in a place where he’s 15 minutes from a field where he can see horses and cows, in a town where people look him in the eye and smile and mean it, Cohn is quite content.
words: Kimberly Winter Stern
photos: Paul Versluis