About Herman » Interviews » One of the Luckiest People in the World

One of the Luckiest People in the World: Didier Chatelain Remembers Herman Cohen

As Told to Tom Weaver

Didier Chatelain was Herman Cohen's friend for 35 years. They first met on a Paris-to-London flight in 1967, when Didier was a college student in London. Several years later, Chatelain went to work for Herman handling advertising and publicity. (At the time Herman was producing films, and owned the legendary 5000-seat Fox Theater in Detroit.) In the early 1980s, the pair formed the Cobra Media film distribution company. Here, Didier recalls their close professional and personal relationship, and provides the details of Cohen's death.

Didier Chatelain:
I met Herman on the airplane to London, and I thought he was kind of a fascinating person. I had just finished in the French military (I was in the South Pacific for over a year), and, leaving the military, you're not impressed with anything, because you have a bad taste in your mouth [laughs]! So nothing really impressed me at that time. But I thought he was kind of fascinating. And he was kind of fascinated with the kind of lifestyle that we lived down in that part of the world. We exchanged some interesting stories. He was interested in my experiences, and in people in general. He was always very curious about what made people tick.

Click to EnlargeWe became acquaintances, and I was on the set of his pictures CROOKS AND CORONETS [1969] and TROG [1970]. I started working for him around 1973. I was out of college by then, and I joined the advertising and publicity department of Herman Cohen Productions, Ltd., in London. One of my first assignments after I joined the company: I was on my way to Hollywood from London, and Herman said, "I'd like you to stop in Detroit and meet up with Bill Brown," who was his partner and No. 2 man in the downtown Fox Corporation that exploited the Fox Theater. I spent quite a few weeks in Detroit learning the theater ropes. It was quite an experience. By the mid-70s, they were only showing movies at the Fox Theater, but when Herman first took the Fox Theater [in the early '60s], he would put on some live shows, with people like Marvin Gaye and (I think) Stevie Wonder and so on. Similar to Radio City Music Hall, when they had some kind of a live theater show prior to the movie. He had some tremendous people there at the Fox Theater early on, people who later became very big talents. He used those people for opening acts, before the showing of the movies. Motown artists, and Motown-type artists. And as I say, a lot of them became singing sensations.

First, I worked in the advertising-publicity department. I was liaison between his company and the studios on some of these pictures that he made for Warners and Columbia. Then I went into production, and I became his assistant—assistant to the producer—on the picture with Jack Palance, CRAZE [1973]. I advanced in the company to a point where I was involved in a lot of the decision-making process, creatively speaking. He would leave a lot of the creative aspects of the company to me.

Years later, I think it was either late '81 or early '82, we formed Cobra Media. Herman was not happy with the way the pictures that he had given to various distributors were exploited. He felt that he could do a better job. He also felt that he was kind of the "ass end" of the chain, as it were. The theaters got the first buck, and then the distributor got a good cut, and then, if there was anything left, then the producer might get a couple bucks. Click to EnlargeHerman felt he could control his destiny a lot better by going into distribution. We began Cobra Media with CROCODILE, WATCH ME WHEN I KILL, STEEL-FISTED DRAGON, a whole bunch of exploitation pictures, and we were based at Raleigh Studios, which at the time was called Producers Studios. We gave it a good shot for several years, but then after a while...[theatrical] distribution was no longer a viable thing. The independent distributors were really being squeezed. For many years, we used to go to the Cannes Film Festival, and we were able to sometimes pick up some damn good product before the studios grabbed it. But after a while, it became just impossible—the studios would outbid you with their eyes closed. So it became a matter of being basically squeezed out of the market. Not just us, but every independent. We kept exploiting our pictures in terms of the other media, but theatrical distribution we kind of phased out. The pictures we owned had been exploited—we had squeezed the juice out of them, as it were.

When Herman first got the news from his doctor that he had tested positive for squamous cell carcinoma, he was completely stunned. He couldn't believe that someone like him, who had never smoked a day in his life, and never drank excessively, could ever come down with something like this. If it had been cancer of the colon or cancer of anything else, that would have been "acceptable" to him...but the fact that he never even came near a cigarette, or anything like that...! He was very disturbed by that, he was angry—very angry. He didn't think it was right!

March 8 is when he had a C.T. scan [CAT Scan], and he found out [that he had tested positive] maybe a couple of weeks later, after the biopsy. They said there was a mass at the very base of the tongue. They didn't start his therapy until April 29. It affected his voice for a while—between March 8 and the time that he started the therapy, the mass must have grown sizably, and of course it was giving him a lot of trouble. He would have bloody mucus come out and so on...

Obviously, nobody knows the real reason he came down with this. But he mentioned several times to me that it may have been a result of being in the military. In the military, the men maybe did not or could not wash as much as one should; they were in foxholes and so on, and the men would develop acne on their bodies. At that time, the military thought that the best way to combat this problem was to give 'em x-ray treatments. Of course, years later, they discovered that this was probably the worst thing they could have done to these young people in the military.

For the first week, he was both given chemo and radiation, and then the second, third and fourth week, and into the fifth week, he was given only radiation. Unfortunately, after the second week of his treatment, I got a phone call from my family that my mother was in the process of dying, and I was told I had better come home to France immediately. Herman basically carried on very well during the time I was gone, 10 or 12 days. My mom passed away and I had to go down with the rest of my siblings to the South of France for the burial service—our family plot is down there, in the Southern Alps. Then I came back home—and when I came back, I noticed that there had been a bit of a change in Herman, he had lost quite a bit of weight. He was not eating as well as he should have. He wasn't able to swallow.

Click to EnlargeThe last time he went into the office was on the Thursday [May 30, 2002] before he died. He was weak, he didn't stay more than maybe an hour and a half or two hours. Incidentally, that was the week that his sister Bea died, and he was upset that he wasn't able to go home to Detroit [for her funeral], but he knew that his treatment was more important than going there, and that his family would understand.

On Friday, the day afterwards, I decided not to go home to Big Bear over the weekend. I used to go home very quickly to take care of things, and then would come right back down to L.A. to be with him. But that weekend...I don't know, something told me, "This is not the weekend for me to leave him." When I offered to stay, he said, "Go home, go see Debbie and the kids. I'll be fine." I said, "No, no. I think I'll stay." He insisted that I go, but I stayed. The next day was Saturday, and he said again, "Why don't you go? You can go." I said, "No, no. I'm gonna stay." At that point, he was not eating well—he basically wasn't eating anything. Saturday night, we went out again to try to get him something to eat...Sunday we out went to breakfast...he was looking at the food, he was playing with it, but he had no appetite.

The very end is a very interesting story. Herman lived in the Hollywood area, not far from Raleigh Studios. I was there on Sunday afternoon, he was in his bedroom and I was in another bedroom of his house. It was a good thing I wasn't watching TV or listening to the radio or on the phone, because I could hardly hear him when he called out to me. If I had had the TV or the radio on, I probably would not have heard him. Blood was pouring out of his mouth. The tumor had burst open. I said, "I'm calling 911," and he said, "No! Don't!" But I called 911 and they came immediately. Around 2:30...quarter to three in the afternoon, he was rushed to the ER. They started giving him electrolytes and hydrating him, they did an EKG and they did x-ray and all kinds of blood tests and stuff, and they said he was stable. They placed calls to his three doctors, his oncologist, his internist and his ENT man [ear, nose and throat]. The first one to come was the ENT man, and he checked Herman with the camera inside and he said, "Oh, yeah, the tumor's burst," and basically said he could be discharged! I looked at Herman and I said, "What the heck is he talkin' about?" The ENT man said, "Yeah, he's fine, he can go home."

"Look," I said, "the man has hardly eaten in the past week to ten days. He's dehydrated. And he's lost tremendous weight." I said this to the ENT man, in front of Herman. "I think he ought to stay the night." This ENT guy and a young intern left the room and they were arguing—I heard the intern say, "Well, what if he bleeds again?", and the ENT guy said, "So what? It's not gonna KILL him!" After a while, the ENT guy said [grudgingly], "All right, all right, I guess he's gonna stay." There were two blood clots, and Herman had managed to pass one out—but there was another one. When the young intern said, "Do you think we might want to pull that blood clot out?", the ENT guy said, "No, I don't want him to start hemorrhaging again." The ENT guy kept saying throughout the entire ordeal that all Herman needed was to drink a glass of cold water and that would stop the bleeding. He was not concerned at all! I was upset by this attitude.

Click to EnlargeHerman was quite alert, he was smiling, almost as if he was gonna go home. But when I said, "I think it's crazy for you to go home," he finally said, "Awww, you're right, I'm gonna stay." He was supposed to have been moved to the South Tower at Cedars-Sinai, to a regular room. Not ICU, mind you—just a regular room! That shows you that they thought there was no immediate danger. Herman said, "Why don't you go to the house, feed the dog, get my cell phone and my phone book and fresh clothes, and come back?" I left for an hour, hour and a half, came back...thinking he was in the South Tower. But they told me he wasn't there. He was in the ER.

I ran across the road, burst into the ER and said, "What's with Mr. Cohen?" They said, "Well, he's critical." "Critical? What are you talkin' about??" At that point, they were very reluctant to have me come into the ER, even though I was his medical power of attorney. I insisted to be taken in there, and finally they relented and they put in one of those "special rooms," saying, "Somebody will be with you." I knew that was not good news. After waiting five minutes in that room, I figured, "I'm not gonna wait here forever," and I ran into the ER and as I did, I could see that Herman wasn't in there, they were cleaning up the room. I grabbed hold of the male nurse in there and said, "What happened to Mr. Cohen?" He said, "Oh...he expired."

I went back to the special room and I stayed there until the intern came. He asked, "Do you want to see the body?" I said, "Of course I want to see the body." I went back in the ER, and that's when I realized that Herman's body had been in there the whole time. They had put him in a white body bag, and it was zipped up. When the bag is closed and it's white, you think it's the bed. So I knew that he had to have been in there earlier, when I ran in and thought the room was empty and found out he had expired. They unzipped it enough so I could see...

I'll tell you the truth, Tom: I don't know what happened. There's something maybe strange about it. My feeling is, once they thought he stabilized, they probably left him and went on to tend other people. Maybe that blood clot went and obstructed his air pipe, and he basically stopped breathing. And maybe there was nobody there to call out to. I'm sorry that I listened to Herman and left for an hour—maybe I should have stayed. By the time I got there, they were keeping me away from the ER. that's what bothers me. If they had let me come in, I would have been able to witness what was going on. But they kept me away.

Herman had fought the cancer like a trooper. But it was a very short process—I never thought in a million years that everything would happen so suddenly, because the doctors all seemed to be so positive and so pleased with themselves. I never thought that something like this could happen to him, I thought it was gonna drag on.

It was a Sunday evening when he passed away, around 8:30...the day of his sister Bea's funeral. The next day, I made arrangements, and he was flown in Monday night on Northwest to Detroit. I took a flight on American to Detroit as well, and arrived on Tuesday morning. His service was on Wednesday afternoon, June the fifth.

Click to EnlargeHerman was a man who was very gregarious, very much "into people." It was amazing—he would talk to a person, and he would make that person talk to him and tell him their entire life story. He was that kind of a man. He would come to us after talking to some stranger for five minutes and say, "He told me this, this and this," and we'd say, "He told you all these things?" Sometimes revealing things about their personality or about their lives or their nature or their dreams or so forth. People opened up real easy with him, because he was a good listener. And he didn't care who somebody was, he didn't care if you were a big-time producer or director or movie star. He was interested in people behind the camera, on the set, whether it was a prop person, or a camera operator, or a second or third assistant director. He was interested in these people just as much. ["Important" people] didn't necessarily interest him any more than they did. He'd make friends with a chauffeur, he'd find out all about his life, and he was interested in that just as much as he would want to talk to Jack Palance or people like that!

It was interesting: On a few occasions, he was gonna be married. But he was very close to his father and, from what he told me, his father would say, "Gee, do you think you're doing the right thing? Maybe she wants you for your money"—that kind of thing. There was one girl in particular that he really had fallen in love with, the daughter of a very famous doctor, and she ended up marrying a friend of his! (That was before I knew him.) I think, after that, he was kind of thinking, "It's not for me." He loved children. He loved to come over to our house to see me and Debbie, play with the kids—and then he was happy to go home. I don't think that married life was for him. He really was a bachelor to that extent. He basically didn't mind having a relationship, but then whenever he felt that it was over, that was it. He used to go out quite often. In fact, he used to double-date quite often with Nat Cohen—everybody thought Nat was his older brother! Nat was British, and a widower, and he would always say to Herman, "Hey, we're goin' out with so-and-so and so-and-so..." Usually they were starlets. Herman was quite gregarious, and very open, but basically did not allow himself to get locked up into anything.

Click to EnlargeHerman enjoyed people in general but his love, frankly, was the movies. I'm telling you the truth. He was getting off on movies more than anything else, in my opinion. I think that's the reason why he never committed to anyone in particular. Because the movies, the movie business, was his number one love. Always. The movie business—and his dogs! He had many dogs in his life, and he was very close to his dogs. When people used to say, "You don't go out as much as you used to," or "You don't date as much as you used to," he'd say, "I love my dog." [Laughs] "She's wonderful, I sleep next to her, she cuddles close to me and I love her." The last dog's name was Sally—Sally's with me now. She's now pals with my dog Kelly, so I've got two dogs instead of one now. Herman always used to say Sally and Kelly were like distant cousins. He used to come here and stay with me and Debbie and the kids for Christmas and Thanksgiving, all the major holidays, and he used to bring Sally. Toward the end, the love of his life, after the movies, were his dogs. He always used to say, "I don't trust people who don't like animals!"

Herman was a very fascinating and very driven type of a person. I think he was one of the luckiest people in the world, for one reason: He knew at a very, very, very young age what he wanted to do. Anybody who has this kind of drive, from early on, I think can't miss.

Tom Weaver is an award-winning author and film historian who has written numerous articles and books on classic horror and science fiction movies and their creators. This interview originally appeared on The Astounding B-Monster web site and has been reprinted with the permission of the author.

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