Harry Cohn, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, and Me

November 24, 2010

Harry Cohn, one of the founders of and president of Columbia Pictures, may not have been the most universally despised executive in the entire history of Hollywood but one would be hard pressed to come up with a close competitor for that title. Abrasive, abusive, foul-mouthed, and feared, Cohn nevertheless ruled Columbia for almost forty years. Despite his personality, Cohn knew great success during his tenure, most notably in his partnership with legendary film director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Lost Horizons, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

My father S. Sylvan Simon was a hugely successful director and producer (The Fuller Brush Man, Whistling in Brooklyn, Son of Lassie, etc.) who had made more than 40 films in his career before he spent the last couple of years of his life working as Cohn’s head of production at Columbia. I detail that relationship in Bringing Back The Old Hollywood, including the fascinating connection between Dad, Cohn, and Frank Sinatra that brought Sinatra the Academy Award for From Here to Eternity, and caused Frank to become my “godfather”.

I also experienced Cohn’s nastiness firsthand at the age of 4 when one of his sick jokes made me incredibly ill. As I write in my book about the aftermath of that traumatic experience:

“If I had been more conscious, I would have heard the kind man who had helped me tell my mother and father that it “was that sonofabitch Harry” who had given me the shot glass full of whiskey. I would have also noticed that Harry was no place to be found, having literally sprinted out of the house when he saw how ill his little jest had made me.

When I got a bit older, I discovered that Harry was Harry Cohn, the iron-fisted and almost universally despised head of Columbia Pictures from the 1920s through the 1950s. Cohn would also later play a prominent role both in my father’s death and in Frank Sinatra becoming my unofficial godfather.

The man who helped me that day was Red Skelton, my Dad’s best friend and collaborator, and one of the great comic actors and personalities of his day. In 1958, when Cohn died and a few thousand people showed up at the funeral, Red was quoted as saying ”See, give the people what they want and they’ll show up.” Years later, Red Skelton was the man who finally explained to me what had really happened with Dad, Cohn, and Sinatra.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Vincent December 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm

For all of Harry Cohn’s many faults, he did have an eye for talent, even though he rarely had the resources to harness them over the long term (Frank Capra being an obvious exception).

Many stars hated him, and understandably so — but one actress who got along with him was, of all people, Carole Lombard, one of the most liked people in the industry. She and Cohn had a fine give-and-take, and he generally gave her better material than she was getting at her home studio of Paramount (“Twentieth Century” put Lombard on the map as a comedic actress, and “Virtue” is arguably her best vehicle before that).

For more on Carole and Columbia, see my entry at http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/9977.html

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Stephen Simon December 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Hi Vincent….yes, excellent point about Harry Cohn….he was indeed a very smart and shrewd studio head…he had a ton of success….and, as you mentioned, part of that success was his relationship with Frank Capra who spoke the world of Cohn…of course, Cohn probably never gave Capra’s 5 year old son a shot of whiskey and say it was ginger ale!…..again, thanks for the comment and welcome to the community!…Stephen

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