As told to TOM WEAVER
Didier Chatelain was Herman Cohen's
friend for 35 years. They first met on a Paris-to-London
flight in 1967, when Didier was a college student in London.
Several years later, Chatelain went to work for Herman handling
advertising and publicity. (At the time Herman was producing
films, and owned the legendary 5000-seat Fox Theater in
Detroit.) In the early 1980s, the pair formed the Cobra
Media film distribution company. Here, Didier recalls their
close professional and personal relationship, and provides
the details of Cohen's death.
I met Herman on the airplane to London, and I thought he
was kind of a fascinating person. I had just finished in
the French military (I was in the South Pacific for over
a year), and, leaving the military, you're not impressed
with anything, because you have a bad taste in your
mouth [laughs]! So nothing really impressed me at that time.
But I thought he was kind of fascinating. And he
was kind of fascinated with the kind of lifestyle that we
lived down in that part of the world. We exchanged some
interesting stories. He was interested in my experiences,
and in people in general. He was always very curious about
what made people tick.
We became acquaintances, and I was on the set of his pictures
Crooks and Coronets  and Trog .
I started working for him around 1973. I was out of college
by then, and I joined the advertising and publicity department
of Herman Cohen Productions, Ltd., in London. One of my
first assignments after I joined the company: I was on my
way to Hollywood from London, and Herman said, "I'd
like you to stop in Detroit and meet up with Bill Brown,"
who was his partner and No. 2 man in the downtown Fox Corporation
that exploited the Fox Theater. I spent quite a few weeks
in Detroit learning the theater ropes. It was quite an experience.
By the mid-70s, they were only showing movies at the Fox
Theater, but when Herman first took the Fox Theater [in
the early '60s], he would put on some live shows, with people
like Marvin Gaye and (I think) Stevie Wonder and so on.
Similar to Radio City Music Hall, when they had some kind
of a live theater show prior to the movie. He had some tremendous
people there at the Fox Theater early on, people who later
became very big talents. He used those people for opening
acts, before the showing of the movies. Motown artists,
and Motown-type artists. And as I say, a lot of them
became singing sensations.
First, I worked in the advertising-publicity department.
I was liaison between his company and the studios on some
of these pictures that he made for Warners and Columbia.
Then I went into production, and I became his assistant
-- assistant to the producer -- on the picture with Jack
Palance, Craze . I advanced in the company
to a point where I was involved in a lot of the decision-making
process, creatively speaking. He would leave a lot of the
creative aspects of the company to me.
Years later, I think it was either late '81 or early '82,
we formed Cobra Media. Herman was not happy with the way
the pictures that he had given to various distributors were
exploited. He felt that he could do a better job. He also
felt that he was kind of the "ass end" of the
chain, as it were. The theaters got the first buck, and
then the distributor got a good cut, and then, if
there was anything left, then the producer might get a couple
bucks. Herman felt he could control his destiny a lot better
by going into distribution. We began Cobra Media with Crocodile,
Watch Me When I Kill, Steel-Fisted Dragon, a
whole bunch of exploitation pictures, and we were based
at Raleigh Studios, which at the time was called Producers
Studios. We gave it a good shot for several years, but then
after a while ...[theatrical] distribution was no longer
a viable thing. The independent distributors were really
being squeezed. For many years, we used to go to the Cannes
Film Festival, and we were able to sometimes pick up some
damn good product before the studios grabbed it.
But after a while, it became just impossible -- the studios
would outbid you with their eyes closed. So it became a
matter of being basically squeezed out of the market. Not
just us, but every independent. We kept exploiting
our pictures in terms of the other media, but theatrical
distribution we kind of phased out. The pictures we owned
had been exploited -- we had squeezed the juice out of them,
as it were.
When Herman first got the news from his doctor that he
had tested positive for squamous cell carcinoma, he was
completely stunned. He couldn't believe that someone like
him, who had never smoked a day in his life, and never drank
excessively, could ever come down with something like this.
If it had been cancer of the colon or cancer of anything
else, that would have been "acceptable" to him
... but the fact that he never even came near a cigarette,
or anything like that...! He was very disturbed by that,
he was angry --very angry. He didn't think
it was right!
8 is when he had a C.T. scan [CAT Scan], and he found out
[that he had tested positive] maybe a couple of weeks later,
after the biopsy. They said there was a mass at the very
base of the tongue. They didn't start his therapy until
April 29. It affected his voice for a while -- between March
8 and the time that he started the therapy, the mass must
have grown sizably, and of course it was giving him a lot
of trouble. He would have bloody mucus come out and so on
Obviously, nobody knows the real reason he came down with
this. But he mentioned several times to me that it may have
been a result of being in the military. In the military,
the men maybe did not or could not wash as much as one should;
they were in foxholes and so on, and the men would develop
acne on their bodies. At that time, the military thought
that the best way to combat this problem was to give 'em
x-ray treatments. Of course, years later, they discovered
that this was probably the worst thing they could
have done to these young people in the military.
For the first week, he was both given chemo and
radiation, and then the second, third and fourth week, and
into the fifth week, he was given only radiation. Unfortunately,
after the second week of his treatment, I got a phone call
from my family that my mother was in the process of dying,
and I was told I had better come home to France immediately.
Herman basically carried on very well during the time I
was gone, 10 or 12 days. My mom passed away and I had to
go down with the rest of my siblings to the South of France
for the burial service -- our family plot is down there,
in the Southern Alps. Then I came back home -- and when
I came back, I noticed that there had been a bit of a change
in Herman, he had lost quite a bit of weight. He was not
eating as well as he should have. He wasn't able to swallow.
The last time he went into the office was on the Thursday
[May 30, 2002] before he died. He was weak, he didn't stay
more than maybe an hour and a half or two hours. Incidentally,
that was the week that his sister Bea died, and he was upset
that he wasn't able to go home to Detroit [for her funeral],
but he knew that his treatment was more important than going
there, and that his family would understand.
On Friday, the day afterwards, I decided not to go home
to Big Bear over the weekend. I used to go home very quickly
to take care of things, and then would come right back down
to L.A. to be with him. But that weekend ... I don't know,
something told me, "This is not the weekend for me
to leave him." When I offered to stay, he said, "Go
home, go see Debbie and the kids. I'll be fine." I
said, "No, no. I think I'll stay." He insisted
that I go, but I stayed. The next day was Saturday, and
he said again, "Why don't you go? You can go."
I said, "No, no. I'm gonna stay." At that point,
he was not eating well -- he basically wasn't eating anything.
Saturday night, we went out again to try to get him something
to eat ... Sunday we out went to breakfast ... he was looking
at the food, he was playing with it, but he had no appetite.
The very end is a very interesting story. Herman lived
in the Hollywood area, not far from Raleigh Studios. I was
there on Sunday afternoon, he was in his bedroom and I was
in another bedroom of his house. It was a good thing I wasn't
watching TV or listening to the radio or on the phone, because
I could hardly hear him when he called out to me. If I had
had the TV or the radio on, I probably would not
have heard him. Blood was pouring out of his mouth. The
tumor had burst open. I said, "I'm calling 911,"
and he said, "No! Don't!" But I called 911 and
they came immediately. Around 2:30 ... quarter to three
in the afternoon, he was rushed to the ER. They started
giving him electrolytes and hydrating him, they did an EKG
and they did x-ray and all kinds of blood tests and stuff,
and they said he was stable. They placed calls to his three
doctors, his oncologist, his internist and his ENT man [ear,
nose and throat]. The first one to come was the ENT man,
and he checked Herman with the camera inside and he said,
"Oh, yeah, the tumor's burst," and basically said
he could be discharged! I looked at Herman and I said, "What
the heck is he talkin' about?" The ENT man said, "Yeah,
he's fine, he can go home."
"Look," I said, "the man has hardly eaten in the past
week to ten days. He's dehydrated. And he's lost tremendous
weight." I said this to the ENT man, in front of Herman.
"I think he ought to stay the night." This ENT guy and a
young intern left the room and they were arguing -- I
heard the intern say, "Well, what if he bleeds again?",
and the ENT guy said, "So what? It's not gonna KILL him!"
After a while, the ENT guy said [grudgingly], "All right,
all right, I guess he's gonna stay." There were two blood
clots, and Herman had managed to pass one out -- but
there was another one. When the young intern said, "Do you
think we might want to pull that blood clot out?", the ENT
guy said, "No, I don't want him to start hemorrhaging again."
The ENT guy kept saying throughout the entire ordeal that
all Herman needed was to drink a glass of cold water and
that would stop the bleeding. He was not concerned at all!
I was upset by this attitude.
Herman was quite alert, he was smiling, almost as if he
was gonna go home. But when I said, "I think it's crazy
for you to go home," he finally said, "Awww, you're
right, I'm gonna stay." He was supposed to have been
moved to the South Tower at Cedars-Sinai, to a regular room.
Not ICU, mind you -- just a regular room! That shows you
that they thought there was no immediate danger. Herman
said, "Why don't you go to the house, feed the dog,
get my cell phone and my phone book and fresh clothes, and
come back?" I left for an hour, hour and a half, came
back ... thinking he was in the South Tower. But they told
me he wasn't there. He was in the ER.
I ran across the road, burst into the ER and said, "What's
with Mr. Cohen?" They said, "Well, he's critical."
"Critical? What are you talkin' about??"
At that point, they were very reluctant to have me come
into the ER, even though I was his medical power of attorney.
I insisted to be taken in there, and finally they relented
and they put in one of those "special rooms,"
saying, "Somebody will be with you." I knew that
was not good news. After waiting five minutes in that room,
I figured, "I'm not gonna wait here forever,"
and I ran into the ER And as I did, I could see that Herman
wasn't in there, they were cleaning up the room. I grabbed
hold of the male nurse in there and said, "What happened
to Mr. Cohen?" He said, "Oh ... he expired."
I went back to the special room and I stayed there until
the intern came. He asked, "Do you want to see the
body?" I said, "Of course I want to see the body."
I went back in the ER, and that's when I realized that Herman's
body had been in there the whole time. They had put him
in a white body bag, and it was zipped up. When the bag
is closed and it's white, you think it's the bed. So I knew
that he had to have been in there earlier, when I ran in
and thought the room was empty and found out he had expired.
They unzipped it enough so I could see ...
tell you the truth, Tom: I don't know what happened.
There's something maybe strange about it. My feeling is,
once they thought he stabilized, they probably left him
and went on to tend other people. Maybe that blood clot
went and obstructed his air pipe, and he basically stopped
breathing. And maybe there was nobody there to call out
to. I'm sorry that I listened to Herman and left for an
hour -- maybe I should have stayed. By the time I got there,
they were keeping me away from the ER. that's what
bothers me. If they had let me come in, I would have been
able to witness what was going on. But they kept me away.
Herman had fought the cancer like a trooper. But it was
a very short process -- I never thought in a million
years that everything would happen so suddenly, because
the doctors all seemed to be so positive and so pleased
with themselves. I never thought that something like this
could happen to him, I thought it was gonna drag on.
It was a Sunday evening when he passed away, around 8:30
... the day of his sister Bea's funeral. The next day, I
made arrangements, and he was flown in Monday night on Northwest
to Detroit. I took a flight on American to Detroit as well,
and arrived on Tuesday morning. His service was on Wednesday
afternoon, June the fifth.
Herman was a man who was very gregarious, very much "into
people." It was amazing -- he would talk to a person,
and he would make that person talk to him and tell him their
entire life story. He was that kind of a man. He
would come to us after talking to some stranger for five
minutes and say, "He told me this, this and this,"
and we'd say, "He told you all these things?"
Sometimes revealing things about their personality or about
their lives or their nature or their dreams or so forth.
People opened up real easy with him, because he was a good
listener. And he didn't care who somebody was, he
didn't care if you were a big-time producer or director
or movie star. He was interested in people behind the camera,
on the set, whether it was a prop person, or a camera operator,
or a second or third assistant director. He was interested
in these people just as much. ["Important"
people] didn't necessarily interest him any more than
they did. He'd make friends with a chauffeur, he'd find
out all about his life, and he was interested in that just
as much as he would want to talk to Jack Palance or people
It was interesting: On a few occasions, he was
gonna be married. But he was very close to his father and,
from what he told me, his father would say, "Gee, do
you think you're doing the right thing? Maybe she wants
you for your money" -- that kind of thing. There was
one girl in particular that he really had fallen in love
with, the daughter of a very famous doctor, and she ended
up marrying a friend of his! (That was before I knew him.)
I think, after that, he was kind of thinking, "It's
not for me." He loved children. He loved to come over
to our house to see me and Debbie, play with the kids --
and then he was happy to go home. I don't think that married
life was for him. He really was a bachelor to that extent.
He basically didn't mind having a relationship, but then
whenever he felt that it was over, that was it. He
used to go out quite often. In fact, he used to double-date
quite often with Nat Cohen -- everybody thought Nat
was his older brother! Nat was British, and a widower, and
he would always say to Herman, "Hey, we're goin' out
with so-and-so and so-and-so ... " Usually they were
starlets. Herman was quite gregarious, and very open, but
basically did not allow himself to get locked up into anything.
Herman enjoyed people in general but his love, frankly,
was the movies. I'm telling you the truth. He was getting
off on movies more than anything else, in my opinion. I
think that's the reason why he never committed to anyone
in particular. Because the movies, the movie business, was
his number one love. Always. The movie business -- and his
dogs! He had many dogs in his life, and he was very close
to his dogs. When people used to say, "You don't go
out as much as you used to," or "You don't date
as much as you used to," he'd say, "I love my
dog." [Laughs] "She's wonderful, I sleep
next to her, she cuddles close to me and I love her."
The last dog's name was Sally -- Sally's with me now. She's
now pals with my dog Kelly, so I've got two dogs instead
of one now. Herman always used to say Sally and Kelly were
like distant cousins. He used to come here and stay with
me and Debbie and the kids for Christmas and Thanksgiving,
all the major holidays, and he used to bring Sally. Toward
the end, the love of his life, after the movies,
were his dogs. He always used to say, "I don't trust
people who don't like animals!"
Herman was a very fascinating and very driven type of
a person. I think he was one of the luckiest people in the
world, for one reason: He knew at a very, very, very young
age what he wanted to do. Anybody who has this kind
of drive, from early on, I think can't miss.
Tom Weaver is the author of I Was a Monster Movie Maker:
Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers, Science
Fiction Confidential: Interviews with 23 Monster Stars and
Filmmakers and many others available from McFarland