About Herman » Interviews » Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Part 1 of 6
Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Herman Cohen, The Early Years
By Tom Weaver
This is part 1 of an interview that was published at HermanCohen.com in 6 parts. This interview originally appeared as a chapter in film historian Tom Weaver's excellent book Attack of the Monster Movie Makers (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. 1994) and has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author (thank you, Tom!). For a list of the author's books currently in print, visit the McFarland & Co. web site.
In this part of the interview, Herman talks about his early years, from working as an usher at the Dexter Theater in Detroit, to his first jobs in Hollywood for Jack Broder of Realart Pictures, to working on his first independent production TARGET EARTH.
I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. Or a TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN. HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER. HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. There are very few 1950s horror films that are as well remembered as these near-legendary titles, and they represent only the proverbial tip of the iceberg in the amazing career of writer-producer Herman Cohen. The Detroit-born Cohen made his first films (including BRIDE OF THE GORILLA) during the early 1950s during his association with Realart Pictures honcho Jack Broder, and he continued to specialize in horror right on up through the 1970s; today he operates (with partner Didier Chatelain) Cobra Media, which also leans heavily toward the horrific in its roster of titles. In his first-ever truly comprehensive career interview, Cohen looks back over his years of fllmmaking and divulges the deepest secrets behind some of exploitation's greatest horror hits.
What was your first job in the movie business?
My motion picture career began at our local cinema, the Dexter Theater in Detroit, as a gofer when I was about eleven, twelve years old. I started out by helping the janitor after school to get free passes for my family and me. Then the manager hired me to watch the exit doors on Saturday matinees, so nobody'd sneak in [laughs]! And when they were short an usher, and I was about thirteen years old, they put me in a uniform and tried to pin it down and what have you, because it was for somebody sixteen or seventeen. Then I went downtown to the big Fox Theater, which was the theater of Detroit, and I got a job as an usher there. Then I was made chief of service, then assistant manager.
Did your parents encourage your showbiz bug?
No, my parents really had nothing to do with it, and there was nobody in my family that was in showbiz, per se. While at school, I used to put on all the plays and I was in the glee club and choir, I acted (I played Tom Sawyer!), all kinds of things. I was captain of the monitors, captain of the safety patrol—anything in the way of extracurricular activities, I did. And once I was thirteen, I worked seven nights a week at the theater—after school I had to dash to Hebrew school for an hour, and then the theater was my life until late every night. I was picked up by the state labor board twice for working underage. One of my oldest sisters helped me write a letter to the State Labor Commissioner, John H. Thorpe, to ask for a special permit when I was fourteen. I wrote that this was going to be my career; I knew it even at that age. In fact, there was an interview with me in my high school paper when I was a junior, saying I was going to go to Hollywood and get into production.
Anyway, I wrote this John H. Thorpe for a special permit, saying in my letter, "Would you rather I be a member of a local drug store gang, or work in a theater where I am protected by the manager?", "This is going to be my career," all that jazz. I heard nothing. Then about three weeks later, the principal of our school said there was a car and a driver waiting to take me downtown to the Superintendent of the Board of Education in Detroit—he wanted to see me. They drove me downtown, and there was John H. Thorpe, the Secretary of Labor, who was down from Lansing—he wanted to meet the kid that wrote this letter! To make a long story short, he gave me a special permit to work to ten p.m. (Of course, once I got that, I worked till midnight!)
You could work in a factory or a sweatshop at fourteen, but you could not work in a theater, you had to be sixteen. Well, by the time I was sixteen, I was managing the place!
So you've been a movie fan all your life.
Oh, yes—I spent seven nights a week in a theater! And when I was a gofer for the operators in the projection booth, they taught me everything about the projection. In fact, one operator drank a lot, and I remember that many times I used to get up on a chair and make the changeovers for him on nights when he was drinking too much [laughs].
Were horror films your favorite type of film while growing up?
I had no favorite type of film; if the picture was good, I loved it. Including horror. As a kid, I always loved horror, and I used to scare my sister and kid brother going home from the theater!
How did you land your first job in Hollywood?
When I got out of the Marine Corps in nineteen forty-nine, I started working for Columbia Pictures, as sales manager in their Detroit branch. I didn't want to stay there in Detroit, but my mother wasn't too well at the time. When my mother passed away, then there was nothing holding me in Detroit, and that's when I came out to California. I got a job in the Columbia publicity department from Lou Smith, who I had been in touch with for years.
You produced your first films for Jack Broder's company.
Jack Broder owned theaters in Detroit, but I had never met him. But now that I was out in Hollywood, I was told by many people, "Gee, you ought to look Jack up," because he was an ex-Detroiter. He was the head of Realart Pictures, which was the company that had bought the Universal library. Then Jack Broder decided to go into production, and he was looking for an assistant, someone who would work very cheap. I went and had an interview with him, and he hired me. And that's how I got to work for him.
Anthony Eisley, who acted in one of Broders pictures in the '60s, said that for a guy who made pictures, Broder knew amazingly little about them.
It's true. With all respect to Jack, Jack had money, and loved the business. When I was his assistant, it gave me an opportunity to learn all facets of the making of pictures. I got a lot of titles from Jack, instead of money [laughs]—I was vice-president of Jack Broder Productions, this, that and what have you, all at a very young age.
Do you remember what your duties entailed?
Yes—everything [laughs]! Including, when Jack and his wife Bea would go out of town, moving into their house and taking care of their kids! Mind you, it didn't bother me, 'cause he lived at Eight Ten North Camden, which was a beautiful house in Beverly Hills with a swimming pool and a basketball court and everything. They had a black nanny and they had a black cook, but when he and Bea would go away, Jack wanted someone else to be there, too, to supervise the kids and just to be there in case of any problem. So he would ask me, and I didn't mind it because, when I did that, I would call up my friends and invite 'em to come over to go swimming. I played like it was my house! The cook would call to me, "Herman! What do yo' want me to make fo' yo' friends fo' lunch?" And she'd make whatever I asked for [laughs]! So I wasn't getting paid anything, but I was always hoping that Jack would go out of town!
You were "assistant to the producer" on Broder's BRIDE OF THE GORILLA.
During the making of BRIDE OF THE GORILLA was the big ménage à trois with Franchot Tone and Barbara Payton and Tom Neal. Barbara and I became good friends, and—well, what can I say? Even in those days, Barbara Payton, who was a gorgeous gal, was one step away from working Sunset Boulevard. And she was a bit strange—she thought she was a cat, and always wanted to play "cat" with me 'cause I was a young, handsome kid then. She would confide in me. At that time she had Franchot going (because of his money) and Tom Neal (because he was an animal!). We shot BRIDE OF THE GORILLA at the old Sam Goldwyn Studios, and I remember the gate calling one day to say that Tom Neal was there. And Franchot Tone was in Barbara's dressing room! So I had to keep the two of them from meeting!
This was before their big fight?
Right, the fight took place after the picture was finished. But she was toying and playing with both of them during that time. Raymond Burr was also in the picture and he was a great guy, and Lon Chaney, too. I worked with Lon Chaney not only in BRIDE OF THE GORILLA but in THE BUSHWHACKERS  and in BATTLES OF CHIEF PONTIAC , which we shot in Rapid City, South Dakota. Lon Chaney was a wonderful man—he loved the business, he loved the outdoors. In fact, when we did BATTLES OF CHIEF PONTIAC, he refused to sleep in the hotel, he wanted to sleep with the Sioux Indians when we went on location. We had to put up a tent for him and he slept in it, out on the location. In fact, right where Kevin Costner shot his film DANCES WITH WOLVES . I have fond recollections of Lon. He was Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN, just a big, overgrown puppy and a hell of a nice guy.
Was Curt Siodmak, the director of BRIDE OF THE GORILLA, a good director?
He was from Europe—a very serious man—and when he did BRIDE OF THE GORILLA, he thought he was doing GONE WITH THE WIND! He was very serious about everything. He was the brother of Robert Siodmak, a big director, and I genuinely think he thought he was doing a big, big picture. He had a very thick accent, and, of course, to him I was "the kid"—"Hey, kid," "Listen, kid..." But he did do a good job on the picture, for what it was—we made it with spit. Of course, William Beaudine, who directed BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA for Broder, was one of the all-time terrific directors; he must have done one hundred pictures at Monogram and Allied Artists alone. He was such a pro, he was unbelievable; I learned a great deal from Bill Beaudine. A real no-nonsense guy from the old school.
You were associate producer of BROOKLYN GORILLA.
"Associate producer" was just another title; actually, what I was doing was learning how to produce. On BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, the guy that got producer credit, Maurice Duke, had two young guys that looked like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis [Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo] under contract, and that's why he got producer credit. I actually made the picture. And, oh, I hated it—I thought it was just a ridiculous idea. And Bill Beaudine hated the picture as much as I did; to him it was just a job. He said he did so much crap at Monogram and Allied Artists, that it didn't matter if he did another one! But Jack Broder, who knew Martin and Lewis, thought it was funny. We shot that at General Service Studios and our offices were right next door to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who were just starting "I Love Lucy".
What do you remember about Lugosi?
He was very, very sick. He was an old man and not well, and his wife and son were on the set all the time, the wife giving him shots in the dressing room. I don't know what the hell she was giving him; at that time, I didn't know anything about drugs. But I did see syringes occasionally in the dressing room. Lugosi was a nice old guy, and he was happy just to be working. His wife and son would go over his lines with him, he was there when he was supposed to be—but it was sort of like he was "out of it." They brought him there, they told him what to do, he did it for the money—that's my recollection of Bela Lugosi. You couldn't have a personal relationship with him, or a personal conversation, because the minute he was through shooting anything on the sound stage, they would whisk him back to his dressing room.
Didn't Broder get in trouble, ripping off Martin and Lewis?
Oh, yes, we had trouble with Paramount and Hal Wallis. In fact, Jerry Lewis came over from Paramount to talk to Jack about it.
Did you think Mitchell and Petrillo were any good?
No, I thought they were a couple of rip-offs. And that's what the picture was, a cheap rip-off picture, and [laughs] I was embarrassed making it! However, in those days, I'd take credit on anything. With Jack Broder, I got credit on TWO DOLLAR BETTOR , which was a good little picture with John Litel and Marie Windsor; THE BASKETBALL FIX , another good picture, with Marshall Thompson, Vanessa Brown, John Ireland; THE BUSHWHACKERS, which was a hell of a good Western, with Ireland, Wayne Morris (remember him?!), Dorothy Malone, Lon Chaney; and BATTLES OF CHIEF PONTIAC with Lex Barker, Helen Westcott and Chaney, again. I think that was it, 'cause that was about the time I left Jack to form my own company.
What did James Nicholson do for Jack Broder?
That was when I first met James Nicholson. Jim owned the Academy Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and at one point he became very ill. He had to go to the hospital for a long period of time, and when he came out of the hospital, he had lost his theater. Jim was a devastated man. At one time, Jim had been the manager in one of Jack Broder's L.A. theaters, and so Jack, who liked Jim, introduced us and said to me, "Herman, can't we use him in the company? He's terrific at advertising and publicity." I said sure. So Jim worked virtually as my assistant at that time—he worked in advertising in our offices during that period. And when I left Broder, Jim stayed and was promoted.
What did you have to do with the British film GHOST SHIP?
That was one of the pictures I handled after I formed my first company. I met Nat Cohen, who was one of the heads of Anglo Amalgamated Films in England, and we formed a company to do some cheap pictures in London. (Nat was not a relative, by the way.) I would own 'em in certain territories [the Western Hemisphere] and they would own 'em in the rest [the Eastern Hemisphere]. The pictures involved were GHOST SHIP, UNDERCOVER AGENT  and a couple more. I made a deal with Lippert Pictures, and they distributed these things for me here in the States. Then I told Nat, "Look, why don't I bring an American star over to London for the next picture? We'll get more money for it." Nat thought that was a good idea. He was hot, publicity-wise, for Phyllis Kirk, who was in HOUSE OF WAX with Vincent Price—at that time, that was a big picture. So I signed Phyllis Kirk and I produced the picture, which was called RIVER BEAT . Bet you never heard of that one.
The first picture you produced stateside was TARGET EARTH.
TARGET EARTH started with me buying a short story called Deadly City—in fact, Jim Nicholson was with me when I found the magazine with the story in it at a newsstand on North Las Palmas. Jim took the story and started writing a treatment for it, and I bought the treatment from Jim, I think for two hundred fifty dollars. I changed the title to TARGET EARTH, and then I developed the script with a writer named Bill Raynor.
Then I maneuvered to get a deal for financing, and two guys who were really nice to me were Harold Mirisch and Steve Broidy at Allied Artists. I was a young whippersnapper, in my early twenties, and I called up wanting to make an appointment with these guys—and they saw me! They read my first draft script, they liked it, I gave 'em the budget (which was under one hundred thousand dollars) and they said, "If you can get somebody to put up the balance of the financing, we'll put in X-amount of money." I flew to New York and got the head of DeLuxe Labs, Alan Friedman, to put up the money for the print order. And that's how I got the financing on my first independent picture. It really was something—everybody marveled that I put the damn thing together.
Then you got a film editor, Sherman Rose, to direct it for you.
Sherman Rose was "Pop" Sherman's nephew—Harry "Pop" Sherman, who produced all the HOPALONG CASSIDY Westerns. Sherman Rose practically grew up on a sound stage. He and his wife Kathleen worked a couple of the Jack Broder pictures, and I also met him at Columbia, socially. (And Kathleen Rose won an Academy Award for sound effects editor a few years ago, I want you to know. She's a great sound effects editor, one of the tops in the industry.) So I hired Sherman Rose to direct—that was his first directing job.
Where did you shoot TARGET EARTH?
We shot at Kling Studios—Charlie Chaplin Studios—which is now A&M. And also we were on location all over the place. We shot on weekends without permits... my garage...you name it. We shot on the empty streets of L.A. early in the morning on four or five weekends, to get the scenes of the evacuated city. A friend of mine was a cop with the L.A.P.D., and he came with us one early Sunday morning in his uniform. (We didn't have any permits. We could've got in real trouble.) We cleared the streets in downtown L.A. The only problem we had was that there was a Catholic church right across from where we were shooting. There were no people on the street, we were shooting and then all of a sudden the church doors swung open and the people came piling out [laughs]! "Oh, God! Stop the cameras!" We forgot that they were all in there!
You had a good cast in Richard Denning, Kathleen Crowley and Virginia Grey.
It was a wonderful little family; they cooperated like crazy. They worked early Sunday mornings where we "stole" shots on the city streets, so on and so forth. Sherman Rose and I went out there, not with our crew, but with a hand camera, an Eymo, and shot it ourselves. Then we put in the sound afterwards.
How many robots did you have in that film?
We attacked L.A. with one robot [laughs]! David Koehler was a special effects guy that I've occasionally worked with, and he built the thing in my garage. (Very economically!) I also let Dave Koehler have several other jobs on the picture. The guy who wore the robot suit was my gorilla in BRIDE OF THE GORILLA and BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, Steve Calvert; the first time I met him, he was a bartender at Ciro's on Sunset Strip. He just recently passed away.
Did the picture end up costing one hundred thousand dollars?
We did come in under budget; in fact, the Chemical Bank of New York gave money back to both Allied Artists and DeLuxe when we came in under budget. I think TARGET EARTH cost about eighty-five thousand dollars. It took about a week as far as actual shooting, but then we did a lot of post-production. All the shots of Denning and Kathleen and Virginia and Richard Reeves on the streets and everything else, that was done in post-production.
Continue to Part 2 >>