Saturday, May 9, 2009
Former superagent Sam Cohn is dead. But if there are phones in the afterlife, he’s already tying up two of them.
So Sam is history now, but what a history he had. If this were the eighties, the walls of his agency, ICM, and the chandeliers of his daily lunch site, the Russian Tea Room, would be shaking and lights might even be dimmed on West 57th Street between 5th and 7th Avenues for a commemorative minute. Sam Cohn was the film business in New York.
From our booth at the Russian Tea Room, film archivist Herb Graff and I once watched Sam tie up the main aisle to the tables with a telephone cord stretched from the hostess’s station to his booth. Oblivious to the hostess, the customers waiting to be seated and the waiters trying to serve their tables, Sam chatted for as long as it took to make the deal. No one interrupted or even gestured to him. Herb said to me, “Now that’s power!"
Sam knew power. He dressed indifferently—or perhaps deliberately—to prove it. His ubiquitous worn-looking pale pastel crew neck sweaters, counter de rigueur for anyone else, were standard attire for Sam at lunch, office or opening nights. I hope someone thinks of burying him in one.
I was having lunch with director Joan Micklin Silver one day after she had been on the cover of the New York Times Magazine—no small thing, particularly at the Tea Room. Sam walked right past us. “Doesn’t your agent say hello to you?” I asked her. “Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t,” she replied.
Sam loved New York and everything it offered. He couldn’t have traveled much because he was always present at the usual Manhattan haunts. Hollywood came to him in a trail of glittery stars and dark Hugo Boss suits.
But it was stopping and stooping at the table with the conspicuous kid in our presence that I remember Sam for. I saw him hand McCauley Culkin a dollar bill. And soon another, and another. I knew it wasn’t for a film and it wasn’t a bribe—McCauley’s deportment was beyond reproach. After McCauley and his parents left, I asked Sam about it. He explained they were playing their simplified version of Liar’s Poker (which I suggested they dub Cohn-Culkin Poker), matching eight-digit serial numbers on their respective one dollar bills to see who had the highest and won the other’s money. I chose not to ask Sam how he managed to lose every round to his client.
I was far from the first to observe it was a good thing the napkins at the Tea Room were linen or Sam would have eaten them; he was famous for eating paper. At a gala event in L.A., Robin Williams told the audience Sam Cohn is the only man who can eat paper and screw you at the same time. And everybody got the joke. That’s power, too.
But power is as fleeting as fame and eventually he fell from it. An epitaph etched in stone in a show business hall of fame somewhere should state he was the founding father of the superagent. In his illness, he may have become forgetful, but he’s not likely to be forgotten.