Larry Cohen: B-Movie Barnstormer
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Larry Cohen has been a powerhouse writer/director/producer for more than forty years. The subject of his very own career retrospective documentary film King Cohen The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen (2017), Cohen’s name is synonymous with the exploitation and blaxploitation movie markets.
And he made a mark. His career began in the 1960’s when he produced the televisions series’ “Never Too Young” and “Branded.” His first motion picture, 1972’s Bone was an acclaimed social commentary that was as popular with white audiences (alternately titled Housewife) as it was with African American audiences. During an era when blaxploitation films were among the most popular films in America —Super Fly knocked The Godfather out of the top spot on Variety’s Top Grossing Films List, Cohen expanded on the cred he engendered with Bone and helmed Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem which were both released in 1973.
1974’s cult horror classic It's Alive!—which he wrote, produced and directed, became a franchise. When It Lives Again (1978) and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) were also hits at the box office, Cohen entered the arena of filmmaking legend. (It’s Alive was re-made in 2008).
He also had another franchise. Maniac Cop (1988) was an exploitation cinema favorite that spawned the equally successful Maniac Cop II (1990) and Maniac Cop III: Badge of Silence. Cohen’s many other pictures include God Told Me To (1976), The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), Perfect Strangers (1984), The Stuff (1985), Original Gangstas (1996), Phone Booth (2002), Cellular (2004) and Captivity (2007).
When I interviewed Larry Cohen for my book Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide, Mr. Cohen set aside an entire day for me. He was an unflinchingly honest proud man who enjoyed his renown as much as his many fans enjoy his films. Our focus was on his contribution to the blaxploitation film market but Cohen talked openly and energetically about his entire oeuvre. Today Larry Cohen remains a popular filmmaker on the personal appearance circuit: recognized as one of the few remaining pioneers of a bygone era of film.
Josiah Howard interviews Larry Cohen
Bone is the first film in which you feature an African American in a leading role. What inspired you to write the story?
Well, that was the very first film that I directed. I can’t really tell you what inspired me—I just sat down and wrote the script one day. I was looking for a film that I could direct without too much difficulty—you know not too many locations, small cast, low budget. I thought it was an original idea that had something to say about racism in America (The picture, one of several, was filmed in Cohen’s Beverly Hills home).
It’s an unusually sophisticated script.
It was way ahead of its time. It’s an over the top, kind of wild story, and I must say that I’m very pleased with the recent DVD release. It looks beautiful and the performers are all great. Yaphet Kotto always told me that he thought that his performance in Bone is his best.
How did audiences respond to the picture?
Well the response was odd because the distributor who bought the picture released it as a black exploitation action/adventure film; even though I told him it was a comedy. If you tell an audience that they are buying a ticket for an action film and they go in and get a comedy instead, they come away disappointed and confused. Instead of thinking “Oh, this is a great comedy,” they think “That was the worst action picture I’ve ever seen.” Unfortunately that’s what happened with Bone.
How did you come to cast Yaphet Kotto in the lead?
I had seen Yaphet in The Liberation of L. B. Jones and was greatly impressed with both his performance and the way he looked. He embodied the fantasy image that many people had of what a black man looks like. Since Bone was about people’s fantasies, I thought he was perfect. In fact, I chose him over Paul Winfield, who was a bigger star at the time and wanted the part.
Black Caesar remains one of blaxploitation’s definitive films; how did it come about?
In the early 70s Sammy Davis, Jr. had aspirations of becoming a major movie star. He had been in films but was always cast as a sidekick to people like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. Sammy’s manager contacted me and asked if I would write a treatment for Sammy. I suggested a gangster film. James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were little guys who made great film villains and I thought that Sammy could continue in that tradition. Anyway, the money for the treatment, which I called Black Caesar, never came through. I was told that Sammy was having tax problems, was short of money, and wasn’t going to be able to pay for the treatment. Well, I wasn’t about to sue Sammy Davis, Jr. so I just kept it. Not too long afterwards I had a meeting with Samuel Arkoff at AIP (American International Pictures) and he told me he was looking for a black action vehicle to produce. I said, “Wait a minute, I have something in the car!” I went downstairs and got the Black Caesar treatment out of my trunk and before I left the meeting that day I had a commitment from Arkoff to make the film.
How did you cast Fred Williamson in the title role?
I knew someone who knew Fred’s manager and he arranged a luncheon between the two of us. Fred had just finished filming The Legend of Nigger Charley which was controversial at the time. It had also done good box office so Arkoff OK’d him and we went ahead and did it.
New York City locations ad so much to the feel of the film. Did you prefer location shooting over studio shooting?
Absolutely. It’s a much more enjoyable experience to go to a different location every day rather than sitting on a sound stage. To me, sound stage filming is almost like factory labor. Locations are like another character in the script. They have their own look and temperament.
What was the audience response to Black Caesar?
It was an instant hit. When it opened it played to sold out houses in three New York City theaters. The picture opened in February and it was a really cold winter but it didn’t matter. Lines went around the block and the police had to put up barricades to contain the crowds. I must admit that I kept driving by the theaters just to see the crowds. I got a great kick out of it because Bone hadn’t done much business and now I had this enormous hit.
James Brown’s soundtrack adds a great deal to the picture.
I agree. James did a fantastic job but unfortunately the music he submitted wasn’t timed out to fit the actual scenes in the film. I called up his manager and told him that James had not done what he had been contracted to do and his manager just said “So, he gave you more than you paid for!” I said, “Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. We need the music to fit the scenes exactly—that’s why we gave you a copy of the film.” In the end, I made it work but AIP was furious. James had done the same thing with another one of their films, Slaughter's Big Ripoff. Understandably, when it came time to do the sequel to Black Caesar—Hell Up in Harlem, James had to do his music on spec. He submitted it to AIP and they declined. Brown later released it as a solo recording effort called The Payback and it became one of the biggest albums of his career.
I know that the picture’s ending was changed how did that come about?
Well, at our first preview in Los Angeles audiences were very upset with the fact that the main character was killed in the final act. The fact that white gangster films like Public Enemy and Little Caesar had the main character die at the end didn’t matter to black audiences. They wanted their gangster to live. So, after the screening I called up Arkoff and told him that we had a disastrous preview and he said “I told you not to kill him!”. The New York opening was just a few days after the preview. Arkoff said, “Well there’s nothing you can do now.” And I said “Yes there is. I can go to New York tomorrow and cut off the last scene in the film by hand!” He said “If you think you can do it—do it!” So, I went to New York, arrived at the theaters where the picture was scheduled to open, introduced myself, went upstairs and cut off the ending—right there on the theater’s projection room floor! The film opened a few hours later without the main character dying at the end and it was exactly what audiences wanted to see. Mission accomplished!
Why did you choose to release the DVD version with the original ending—especially given that the edited version was the version that audiences saw and enjoyed?
Well, for quality purposes we went back to the original negative. Today, the ending doesn’t seem to disturb audiences as much as it did back then. Also, when the film was first transferred to VHS in the mid-eighties, they used the original negative: the version with the lead character being killed at the end. That meant that the only people who had seen the version with the main character surviving were people who actually saw the film in movie theaters in 1973. We bet that those people, now older, would probably not be the new audience for the DVD.
Black Caesar is one of only a few blaxploitation films to be followed by a sequel. How did Hell Up in Harlem come about?
Well, I didn’t want to do the same film twice—so we made the sequel more about Tommy Gibbs and his father rather than Tommy Gibbs and the NYC mafia. We turned Tommy’s dad into “Big Poppa” and further developed his life with his son Tommy. It was a great idea and we had it all down on paper but, even so, improvisation served us well. At the time Fred Williamson was only available for filming on weekends. During the week he was doing another picture (That Man Bolt). Consequently, a great deal of the Hell up in Harlem was shot using a double. No one really seemed to notice; then or now.
How did the film fare at the box office?
It did pretty well. I must admit that I don’t believe it’s as good as Black Caesar. There are a lot of good scenes in it, but there are also a lot of action scenes that I don’t believe are necessary: that’s what the studio wanted. Ideally, I think the film should have been cut down: it’s too long and it loses steam as it goes along. But AIP wanted me to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, so that’s what I did.
How are you so familiar with the black experience presented in your films?
I’m not really sure I am. I went to City College in New York City which is located in Harlem and I was there every day for four years; does that qualify? Maybe that has something to do with it. I probably was more aware than other white men who didn’t have that particular experience.
Do you like your actors to improvise or do you prefer a tightly structured working environment?
Improvising is a big part of my approach, especially when we go on location. I like to use whatever is there, make up a scene and give the actors the lines I’ve written right on the spot. This works well for me and I believe it provides the actors with a space where they can contribute in a way that’s coming from their real selves. It’s a collaboration.
Why do you believe blaxploitation films are enjoying a renaissance?
Well, they are fast moving, they have a lot of action, many of the performers are exceptional—Ron O’Neal for instance, was a wonderful actor. Shaft, Super Fly, Coffy, those are all good films; they were good then and they’re good now. That’s enough of a reason right there. Time hasn’t aged the essential themes in the pictures.
What do you say to critics who believe the films are violent and filled with negative stereotypes?
I’d say that action movies are generally about violence. Whether it’s Scarface with Al Pacino or The Godfather series, violence is a major part of the story that the films are telling. They are, after all, movies about gangsters, outlaws people operating outside the system. As for negative stereotypes; I don’t believe blaxploitation films contain any more negative stereotypes than their white counterparts.
Which of your blaxploitation films is your favorite?
I have a warm spot in my heart for Black Caesar because it was the first really big hit that I had. It brought me into the big time and enabled me to keep working in Hollywood. Black Caesar opened doors for me and then I did my darnedest to keep those doors open.
So many different types of films over such a long period of time: how would you like to be remembered?
If anyone remembers me at all, that would be great! I like the fact that my films constantly get reinvented, they come out in new versions and they still get played: people are still interested. I also enjoy going into video stores and seeing my movies on the shelves. Fans continue to write me requesting autographs; that’s pretty great. Or their letters just tell me how much they liked one of my films. That kind of appreciation, so many years after the fact, is extremely gratifying.