About Herman » Interviews » Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Part 6 of 6

Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Herman Cohen, Crazed Trog Goes Berserk!

By Tom Weaver

This is part 6 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.

Part six: Herman works with the legendary Joan Crawford, rubs shoulders with Telly Savalas and Jack Palance, and changes directions in his career.


Click to EnlargeHow did you come to meet Joan Crawford, the star of BERSERK and TROG?
I wanted to try to pitch the lead in BERSERK to Joan Crawford, because I felt that Joan would be perfect for the picture. Joan was a very close friend of Leo Jaffe, the president of Columbia Pictures at that time, and I asked Leo if he would introduce me to her. He was the one who made the introduction, and that's when I became friends with Joan Crawford.

In writing BERSERK, were you thinking back to how well Circus of Horrors came out?
No, that had no effect on it, I just felt that the circus would be a good backdrop for a horror story. I made a deal with the Billy Smart Circus in England, to use their circus in the film. We shot at Shepperton Studios, then we also shot at night at the circus, after the place was closed, for about two weeks.

Today Joan Crawford has the off-screen reputation that she does because of Mommie Dearest, the book and the movie. What kind of lady did you find her to be?
Fascinating. Exciting. In spite of her sipping hundred-proof vodka, she was very professional with me, and would never take a drink unless I okayed it. She always knew her lines and she was always on time. She would come in very early in the morning, like six-thirty, and she loved to cook: She made breakfast for her hairdresser, for her costumer, for "her team." She was strongwilled, she was tough—but, tough as she was, at the drop of a hat, she could be reduced to tears.

For her age, she looks great in BERSERK.
Doesn't she? And doesn't she look great in the leotard? Edith Head designed that leotard for her as a favor.

Crawford's biographies say she was a lonely lady during this period.
Oh, yes, Joan was a very lonely lady, but we became very close friends, from the time of BERSERK until she died. We went out a lot, in London and New York and here in L.A., in the years after I met her on BERSERK.

She was taught everything at MGM, and one thing that she was taught there was that the producer is the boss. She always went to the producer if she had any problems, with the director or with any member of the cast or crew. As an example, one morning she called me, about two o'clock a.m.—woke me up out of a sound sleep—asking, "Herm, you have your script with you?" As if I go to bed with my script [laughs]! She said, "Go get your script! I'm working on tomorrow's scenes and you're sleeping!" I got the script, and she started in, "Now, on page blah, blah, blah," and she wanted to talk about it because, as I said, she was lonely. She would stay up late at night, sipping her vodka, going over her lines for the next day.

Then she said to me, "What time are you leaving for the studio tomorrow morning?"—we were shooting at Shepperton at the time. "Look, why don't you leave around five-thirty and pick me up?" I said, "Well, what's wrong with your car?" "Oh, there's something wrong with the car," she said. That was all b.s. It turned out that one of our prop men had to have all his teeth extracted, and she sent her Rolls-Royce over to pick him up—take him to the dentist—wait for him—and take him home. Then she had it go to a Jewish restaurant in Soho called Isow's, where a lot of members of the industry would always go, and pick him up some chicken soup and bring it to his house! That's why she didn't have a car that day! So I had to call my driver, wake him up, and have him pick her up at five-thirty in the morning. She didn't tell me until after all this happened—in fact, it was the prop man who told me what Joan had done. But she was always doing this kind of stuff—

Click to EnlargeNone of which you'll find in Mommie Dearest.
Right. Christina [Crawford] doesn't mention the nice things that Joan always did, especially for the crew. She was always very close to the crew, and knew all of them by their first names. When we were doing BERSERK, Christina married Harvey Medlinsky, who was a director, and Joan gave Christina a check for five thousand dollars, told her to enjoy herself—I was right there at the time. And she gave her a big dinner party at Les Ambassadeurs, which was the restaurant club in London. None of this is covered in Mommie Dearest. (Harvey was married to Christina for about six years, and he said he never heard Christina tell one of these awful stories. It was her second husband who got her to write this book—they were broke and needed the money and what have you.) Joan ended up leaving Christina and [Joan's] son Chris out of her will, and that was a big mistake. Her attorneys should have advised her to leave them, say one thousand dollars, so they could not contest the will. (They both contested the will.) She was closer to her twins, the two girls, than she was to Christina or Chris. Joan had a lot of problems with Chris.

Did she seem to enjoy horror movies? She did WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, then two each for William Castle and for you.
With Joan and with Bette Davis, they never looked at these pictures as horror films—not even BERSERK. Joan just looked at it as a drama with some horrific moments. You had to be very careful—anyone who is a star never wants to feel they're going into a horror picture. You never use the word "horror" in front of them. In fact, the original title was CIRCUS OF BLOOD and she hated that title. Fortunately, we came up with the title BERSERK, which everybody loved.

Why did she do these pictures? Mainly she wanted to be Joan Crawford, mainly she just wanted to work. She was intrigued by the fact that BERSERK was going to be shot in London, because she loved London and the Brits loved her. And in England, she was still the Joan Crawford of yesteryear, she wasn't "the old gal" there.

Were you pleased with the job she did in the picture?
Oh, yes. After she agreed to do the picture, of course we did a lot of changes on the script to make it fit her, and we had a lot of meetings prior to bringing her to London and shooting the picture. She was very much caught up in the idea of the story. Knowing what kind of a big star she was. I did not want to diminish her stature in any way. Joan always thought of yesteryear, so I assigned her a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur. Even though it stretched the budget. I did whatever I could to make her realize that she was still Joan Crawford. She was revered in England. and we got great publicity there, not only from the tabloids but also The London Times, The Sunday Times and The Observer. Everybody did stories on her while we were shooting the picture.

Were you happy with the way BERSERK came out?
[laughs.] I've never been happy with the way any of my pictures have come out. I always want to do something over again. But BERSERK was a huge hit—a very big success. In fact, we were one of the two top grossers for Columbia Pictures that year. But you keep asking me if I was "happy" with various pictures. We had pictures to make, we made the pictures, we did the best we could with the budgets we had, and there you are. That's the most you can do on a film.

Click to EnlargeLet me rephrase, then. Which of your horror movies were you least unhappy with? Is that a fair question?
Well, it's a fair question, but there's no answer. Although, because it was period, and because I had a lot of fun with the research on Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, I enjoyed A STUDY IN TERROR. The most successful box office-wise was BERSERK and then TROG.

So TROG was also a nice experience, working with Crawford again?
A great experience. TROG was based on an original story by Peter Bryan and John Gilling that I had bought, and then Aben and I wrote the screenplay. I changed the professor from a man to a woman; because we were so successful with BERSERK I wanted to do another picture with Joan. Fortunately, we got the same apartment for Joan that she had had during BERSERK—Columbia Pictures owned this huge apartment at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane, and we rented it for Joan for TROG. Which was great, because she knew the whole staff—the maids, the waiters, everybody. It was like old home week. Joan also had a maid called 'Mamacita." who went with her wherever she went.

Did TROG cost as much as BERSERK did?
TROG cost more than BERSERK. Between BERSERK and TROG, I did CROOKS AND CORONETS [1969] for WarnerBrothers—Telly Savalas, Dame Edith Evans, Warren Oates, Cesar Romero, Harry H. Corbett—and that was a big picture. Then we did TROG for Warners. We shot at Bray, and also out on the English moors. The cave interiors were built at the studio.

One Crawford bio says TROG's budget was so low that portable dressing rooms were not sent on location, and that Crawford huddled in a car parked on the moors.
Untrue. She had a huge caravan—and I have reason to remember that well! We were out on location and it was quite chilly out, and I was told by my assistant that Joan was deathly ill in her caravan. I had my car take me there immediately, I went in to see her and she was saying [huffing and puffing], 'Oh, Herm....oh!...get me a doctor...I can't work. I told her I'd do it, and I turned to run out. On these caravans, the door is low, and I ran and smashed my head against the top of the door [frame]—knocked myself for a loop! Joan jumped up and yelled, "Oh, Herman, Herman, darling! Come here, lie down!" She got a cold compress for my head—"You rest! I'll work!"—and within an hour, she was on the set! She forgot that she was sick, now that she was taking care of me!

Did Freddie Francis do a good job for you as director?
Of course. Freddie had done some horror pictures for Hammer and for Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, and he was a terrific director of photography—he just won an Academy Award for Glory [1989]. In asking him to do TROG, knowing what he had done, I felt that Freddie was right for it. Then when he read the script, and heard that we were going to have Joan, he wanted very much to do it.

During the making of TROG, I brought my three sisters over from the States, and Joan Crawford just took to them like they were her sisters. She gave a dinner party for 'em at Les Ambassadeurs, had a couple brunches, on and on. Joan was always "The Movie Star." There was many a Sunday when it was raining and cold in London, and a group of us from the film was going to go to a movie matinee. Joan said, "I'd love to see that picture," and I said, "Come on!" She said, "Oh, no, no, I'd have to get dressed." "No, you don't, just put a pair of slacks on." And she said, "I would never go out in a pair of slacks!" In other words, she was Joan Crawford. She just hated the young female stars that would go out on the street like they just got up. Whenever you saw Joan, you saw Joan Crawford. She wouldn't even dash to a movie with dark sunglasses on!

Click to EnlargeAnd her drinking was never a problem?
Well, on TROG, her drinking was worse than it was when we were doing BERSERK. I had to reprimand her a few times for drinking without asking. (She had a huge frosted glass that said PEPSI-COLA—but inside was hundred-proof vodka!) In fact, when she arrived to do BERSERK as well as TROG, she arrived with four cases of hundred-proof vodka, 'cause you can't get hundred-proof vodka in England. And when she arrived in both instances, she had something like forty pieces of luggage, and she had to arrange for Pepsi-Cola to send two trucks to meet the plane and pick it all up. These were huge cases, that she and "Mamacita" had packed themselves! And Joan knew where everything was, she was that organized. Now, I guarantee you that she didn't open seventy-five percent of these cases while she was in England, but obviously felt that she had to have 'em all there.

She also had me come to New York and pick out from her own wardrobe what she should wear in these pictures—because she owned a big piece of both pictures, she didn't want us to spend any extra money on wardrobe. In her penthouse in New York, on East Seventy-ninth, she had a huge room, like a two-story room, with a ladder, and in it she kept all her clothes! And she knew where everything was, everything was catalogued! So we picked costumes out of there for both films.

And TROG was a big hit again.
It was very successful. Both BERSERK and TROG came in under budget, on schedule, and again I say that Joan was very professional. When I hear stories today of Kim Basinger and some of the other young stars, I say, "Thank God for people like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, all the old pros."

What can you tell me about CRAZE , with Jack Palance?
We had a very good cast in that: Palance, Trevor Howard, Diana Dors, Dame Edith Evans, Hugh Griffith. Jack Palance and I got along very well, but everyone else was afraid of Jack—he has that aura about him. Freddie Francis was scared stiff of him, and any time a problem came up with Jack, Freddie called me immediately. The gals that were in the picture were scared, too, Suzy Kendall and Julie Ege. Jack had a sex scene with Julie Ege, and he got carried away and grabbed her so hard, one of her breasts started bleeding! I got him a flat right near my flat in London, and I remember that he loved Chinese food. I never ate so much Chinese food in my life, because virtually every night I had to find another Chinese restaurant for him! But as far as his work was concerned, he was very professional and he always knew what he was doing. And he's quite a thinker; you had to explain a lot of things to him, because he wanted to understand what the character was supposed to be doing, this and that. (By the way, he let me know from the beginning, when I first met him here in Hollywood before I signed him, that, "lt's Jack Pal-ance like balance, and don't call me Pa-lance!" He let me know that very quick!)

Click to EnlargeSupposedly you, Francis, and Palance-like-in-balance were all going to do another film together, but it got called off when CRAZE didn't do well.
No, not true at all. CRAZE did very well. But the thing with CRAZE was that I had a deal with National General for release in the U.S.A., and National General was sold to Warner Brothers. So the release was held up because Warner Brothers had the pick of what films they wanted to release from what National General owned. They finally did pick CRAZE, but it took a long time.

Today you're busy with your new company, Cobra Media.
The reason I formed Cobra Media was because the ancillary markets were becoming very big, and we were getting (to put it bluntly) screwed by various companies on the reports and moneys and what have you. We formed Cobra Media in eighty-two and we've had some very successful pictures, CROCODILE, for instance. And we've also been very successful with a picture called WATCH ME WHEN I KILL, another horrific film, and a number of other biggies. We're putting together a package of films right now for the ancillary markets—for cable, for video, for pay-per-view.

Do you get much of a chance to be a hands-on producer these days?
Not recently, except on pictures we've reedited, put music in, etc. I've paid my dues, and certainly I don't want to work for some company as a producer. However, we are working on two screenplays right now that I'm very excited about. One is really horror, and the other sort of leans toward horror. I will be producing these together with Didier Chatelain, my partner.

Are you going to be writing your autobiography soon?
Not right away, because I might be doing those two horror films soon. But after that, what I've been thinking I might do is write a book like Roger Corman did, on all my horror films to date.

In making your AIP horror movies, did you suspect that in thirty or forty years they 'd still have fans, and that some of them would be playing at the Museum of Modern Art?
No, never. Never once. Never thought of it! But, let's face it, as long as there are new electronic devices being invented, who knows where our pictures are going to end up? I think it goes without saying that I'm very, very pleased.

Thank you again to Tom Weaver for permitting
HermanCohen.com to reprint this interview.

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