Legendary agent Sam Cohn, who played a prominent role at International Creative Management from its founding until this year, died Wednesday in New York following a brief illness. He was 79.
After decades as the most prominent agent in New York, Cohn retired from ICM in February.
“His influence was vast. He was able to successfully function in film, television, theater and publishing,” said ICM chairman Jeff Berg. “He encouraged his clients to operate in all areas of the industry.”
Cohn repped thesps and filmmakers including Meryl Streep, Jackie Gleason, Woody Allen, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Nora Ephron, Robert Altman, Paul Newman, Mike Nichols and Sigourney Weaver. His influence extended to Broadway and other fields, and his clients also included Bob Fosse, Arthur Miller, Arthur Penn, Kander and Ebb, Peter Maas and E.L. Doctorow.
“Because he was a lawyer, he was really trained to understand the complexities of the market,” Berg continued. “He had a colorful, larger-than-life public persona (linked to) a fairly circumscribed part of New York from Broadway to Lincoln Center, and on the weekend to East Hampton. He didn’t care much for Los Angeles, but he had a deep impact on the cultural life of New York City.”
Cohn began his dealmaking career in 1963 at General Artists Corp., which later merged with Creative Management Associates. In 1975, Cohn and Berg were among the execs who merged CMA with Intl. Famous Agency, joining forces with Marvin Josephson, Freddie Fields and Sue Mengers.
Upon ICM’s inception, Cohn chose to remain on the East Coast and headed the agency’s New York office for almost 25 years.
A 1982 New Yorker article burnished his reputation, highlighting such eccentricities as a penchant for eating paper, being a gruff negotiator and rarely traveling to Hollywood despite populating studio films with his clients.
The profile observed, “In 1981, 10 feature films and nine Broadway or Off Broadway plays opened that were written, directed or produced by one of his clients or in which a Cohn client had a major acting role.”
He was sometimes referred to as “the most difficult man in the business to get on the phone,” and his irreverent personality and singular sense of style led several of his clients to create characters based on his persona.
Cohn was long a major stockholder and decisionmaker at the agency and cashed out an ownership stake worth multiple millions of dollars when ICM recapitalized with Connecticut-based investor Suhail Rizvi and Merrill Lynch’s Asset Based Finance Group in 2005.
Former ICM prexy and current WMA chairman-chief exec Jim Wiatt told Daily Variety upon his retirement that Cohn was the most formative influence in his career.
“He was such a New Yorker that he regarded as an outsider anyone who lived West of the Mississippi,” Wiatt said. “He could be eccentric and different but was so passionate about artists and the theater, first and foremost.”
Born in Altoona, Pa., Cohn graduated from Princeton U. and Yale Law School. He began his career in the business affairs department of CBS and later became a partner at the law firm Marshall, Bratter, Greene, Allison & Tucker.
He is survived by his wife, Jane Gelfman; son Peter Cohn, a filmmaker; daughter Marya Cohn; and four grandchildren.