Produced the Tonys for 20 years, 'til 1987

NEW YORK — Alexander H. Cohen, one of the most colorful and prolific producers in Broadway history, died Saturday of respiratory failure at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was 79.

Cohen was also the man behind the telecast of the Tony Awards. Beginning in 1967 and for the next 20 years, he and his wife produced the telecast of the legit awards show.

Cohen was represented this season by Noel Coward’s “Waiting in the Wings,” starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris. The play marked his 101st production in a career that dated back to the 1941 production of “Ghost for Sale,” a failure that was quickly followed that same year by a huge hit: Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian melodrama “Angel Street,” starring Vincent Price. In 1944, the play was adapted for the screen and became the Ingrid Bergman starrer “Gaslight.”

“The success of ‘Angel Street’ was one of the worst things that could have happened to me,” Cohen recently told Daily Variety. “I thought I knew everything there was to know about being a producer, and I didn’t have another hit for 10 years.”

Actually, it was 13 years before Cohen produced another financial success, “At the Drop of a Hat,” in 1954.

In his six decades of producing, the New York-born Cohen presented a nearly unparalleled variety of legit productions, including comedies and musicals as well as major stars in the classics and the avant-garde fare of ground-breaking artists. Among his many impressive credits are David Storey’s “Home,” starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, directed by Lindsay Anderson; Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” directed by Peter Hall; Dario Fo’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” starring Jonathan Pryce; Richard Burton in “Hamlet,” directed by John Gielgud; Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders”; Peter Brook’s “La Tragedie de Carmen”; Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Ah, Wilderness”; “Ulysses in Nighttown,” with Zero Mostel; Jerry Herman’s “Dear World,” with Angela Lansbury; Peter Shaffer’s “Black Comedy,” directed by John Dexter, with Michael Crawford and Lynn Redgrave; “6 Rms Riv Vu,” starring Jerry Orbach and Jane Alexander; and “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,” directed by Tommy Tune.

Some of his more recent ventures — “Taking Sides,” “Sacrilege” and “The Herbal Bed” — saw much shorter runs. Cohen, however, defended those plays as “being about something.” The producer put “Waiting in the Wings” in that same category, as it was a message play about the ill effects of old age.

At the time of his own death, Cohen was readying Eric Houston’s dark comedy “Sweet Deliverance,” about euthanasia, for a Broadway opening this fall.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Cohen presented and, in most cases, directed 10 successive shows that brought a high level of sophistication to Broadway. Under the banner of Cohen’s Nine O’Clock Theater, those productions began with Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in “At the Drop of a Hat,” followed by “An Evening With Mike Nichols & Elaine May”; “Beyond the Fringe”; “Yves Montand”; the revivals of John Gielgud’s “Ages of Man” and Victor Borge’s “Comedy in Music”; “Maurice Chevalier at 77″; “Marlene Dietrich”; “Good Evening,” starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; “Words and Music,” starring Sammy Cahn; and the tour of Lena Horne’s “Nine O’Clock Revue.”

In the early 1970s, Cohen was one of the few Broadway producers to foresee and acknowledge the burgeoning influence of not-for-profit theaters across the U.S. “Increasingly, the shows that were winning awards and audiences on Broadway had originated elsewhere,” he said.

In 1974, Cohen conceived and administered the First American Congress of Theater (FACT), which brought together for the first time more than 300 representatives of the for-profit, nonprofit and regional theatrical organizations of America for a weeklong conference at Princeton U.

Cohen’s influence as a producer was hardly limited to New York City. In London, he offered West End theatergoers a variety of fare, including Arthur Miller’s “The Price”; Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite”; Robert Morley in Peter Ustinov’s “Halfway Up the Tree”; Charles Boyer in Terence Rattigan’s “Man and Boy”; James Stewart in “Harvey”; Alan Bates in Simon Gray’s “Life Support”; three Haymarket Co. revivals starring Ralph Richardson, “The Merchant of Venice,” “You Never Can Tell” and “The Revivals”; and the musicals “1776” and “Applause,” starring Lauren Bacall.

Only last week, Cohen said he was at work on a possible West End revival of “Waiting in the Wings.”

Cohen’s extraordinarily personal relationships with big-name talent proved especially useful when he and his wife, Hildy Parks, co-produced three “Night of 100 Stars” telecasts, in 1982, 1985 and 1990. The producer secured most of those celebrities with phone calls to the stars themselves.

Cohen remained truly independent, and belonged to an era when one person and one person only produced a show. Not that he didn’t change with the times, in some respects. Most recently, he worked on shows with such fellow producers as Chase Mishkin, Leonard Soloway, Steven Levy, Max Cooper and Pierre Cossette. He remained prickly, however, and proud of it, often railing about the unnecessarily high cost of producing for the Broadway stage. When he died, Cohen had been working on a book about the theater, which he tentatively titled, jokingly or not, “The Rape of Broadway.”

Cohen’s first marriage, to Jocelyn Newmark, ended in divorce. He married Parks in 1956. He is survived by her and his daughter, Barbara Hoffmann; his sons, Christopher and Gerry; a grandson; and a great-granddaughter.

A private service will be held this week. A public memorial service will be announced shortly.

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