Warren Cowan, entertainment publicity pioneer and mentor to scores of publicists over more than 60 years in the business, died Wednesday, just three weeks after being diagnosed with melanoma, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 87.
Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Dr., Los Angeles.
The consummate Hollywood press agent, Cowan represented everyone from Fortune 500 companies to authors and politicians, including President Ronald Reagan and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He and Reagan often joked that if Cowan had done a better job with publicity during his acting career, Reagan wouldn’t have had to find a new career in politics.
Cowan’s client list over the years included Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Doris Day, Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Steve McQueen, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, the Doors and Michael Jackson. Until his death, he still represented longtime clients Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward at his entertainment PR firm, Warren Cowan & Associates.
Cowan pioneered many of the techniques commonly used in publicity, promotion and marketing today, including bringing celebrities to the White House for events, product placement in films, celebrity charity tributes, using film festivals to promote movies worldwide and hatching publicity stunts such as the longest red carpet.
Peter Bart, Daily Variety editor-in-chief, recalled that “Cowan was more than a press agent — he was a real presence in town and a force in the lives of his clients.” During the PR maven’s marriage to actress Barbara Rush, the Cowans maintained a salon that welcomed the major celebrities of the moment. It was not uncommon to find Danny Kaye mixing with Sandy Koufax and Milton Berle.
Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd and Cowan became best friends when they were 12. “I’m his oldest friend,” Archerd said. “He was the best friend anyone could ever have.”
Cowan got an early start in the business as a publicist for actress Linda Darnell while he attended UCLA and also working as a reporter on the Daily Bruin. After serving in the Army Air Forces during WWII, he joined publicist Henry Rogers in 1946 at his new firm and became a partner in Rogers & Cowan in 1950.
Cowan was in charge of the entertainment divisions for Rogers & Cowan, for decades the biggest entertainment PR firm in the world. He led the company’s expansion into representing movie studios, TV production companies, publishers, cable networks, athletes, gala events and organizations including the Motion Picture Assn. of America and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and its Grammys.
Rogers & Cowan was sold in 1988 to English conglomerate Shandwick. Cowan explained that work at his company had become too administrative for him, leaving him little time to handle publicity.
He formed Warren Cowan & Associates at the conclusion of his two-year “noncompete” sale agreement in 1994, and the agency continues to represent entertainment and corporate clients, including awards campaigns for films that have included “Atonement,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Sicko,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “Chicago” and “Shakespeare in Love.” Among those who reflected on Cowan’s passing, Hugh Hefner said, “Warren Cowan was a longtime friend and associate. He was a part of Old Hollywood. He knew everyone of any importance in this town and represented most of them.”
Longtime friend and client Jerry Weintraub added, “I admired Warren. He has been a part of my life for a very long time, and I have always had the greatest respect and admiration for him.”
Actor James Caan said, “Warren Cowan was the first image of an independent publicist I had ever known. He set the standard, and after that, I could accept nothing less. Because of that I am still with Rogers & Cowan today.”
Cowan “has been part of my life since I was a very young actress, and I can’t imagine life without him,” Woodward said.
In addition to his entertainment clients, Cowan was closely involved with many charitable organizations. He helped promote the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, the United Way, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Society of Singers and the Autism Society.
He traveled throughout the world on behalf of UNICEF for many years, creating innovative public service and public awareness campaigns for the organization. During a special ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, then-President Gerald Ford presented Cowan with United Way’s Alexis de Tocqueville Award for his 17 years of volunteer efforts and called him “the most important United Way volunteer in the entertainment industry.” Cowan succeeded first lady Nancy Reagan as United Way’s national committee communications chair in 1982.
He also supported the Scott Newman Foundation, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Foundation, the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis and the Young Musicians Foundation.
Cowan was honored by the Scott Newman Center in 1990 at a benefit gala hosted by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in celebration of the center’s 10th anniversary of promoting drug education programs. Cowan had been associated with the center since its inception and served on the board of directors. Paul Newman, in presenting the award to Cowan, said: “In the arena of public caring, he’s several dimensions higher. Others may appear to occupy the limelight, but no one works with greater diligence to better effect.”
Cowan also worked closely with Paul Newman on the launch of Newman’s Own products, creating a new model for products to benefit charitable organizations.
In March 2002, Cowan was honored as Hollywood’s mentor of the year by the Volunteers of America at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. President George W. Bush sent a tribute honoring Cowan, as did former president Bill Clinton, with whom Cowan worked on a number of public service projects.
Cowan was born in New York to songwriter Rubey Cowan and wife Grace and attended Townsend Harris High School with Archerd. His older brother, the late Stanley, was a longtime associate at Rogers & Cowan.
The publicist worked until the day before his death and was finishing his autobiography.
He is survived by wife Barbara Gilbert-Cowan; two daughters, Claudia Cowan, a Fox News Channel correspondent, and Bonnie Fleming; three stepchildren, actresses Melissa Gilbert and Sara Gilbert and actor Jonathan Gilbert; and eight grandchildren.
Donations may be made to the Hole in the Wall Gang Fund, 555 Long Wharf Dr., New Haven, CT 06511.