As told to TOM WEAVER

Herman's niece, Gail Cohen, was born in Detroit, living there for three years before her family moved to Atlanta. Following the divorce of her parents, she shuttled between the two cities. She now lives in Cape Charles, Va., where she works as a a theatre historian and archivist. She recalls her uncle's filmmaking career and the tragic circumstances of his death.

I think my Uncle Herman would be amazed by the tributes to him that are popping up on the various Websites. One person on the Internet Movie Database Website even said that Herman Cohen inspired him to make films. I'm very pleased and thrilled at the response; it's wonderful for me to see how he influenced other people. I'm very touched by the people who have written in and commented on my uncle's death, and his life.

The way I learned about Uncle Herman's death was very weird. I went to Cloverhill Cemetery in Royal Oak, Mich., to visit the graves of my three aunts (Uncle Herman's three sisters). Then I went to the grave which I thought was my grandfather, Meyer Cohen -- Meyer Cohen was Uncle Herman's father. But the cemetery gave me the wrong plot number, and sent me to the plot of another Meyer Cohen. Just at that exact time, as fate would have it, the cemetery van was going right past me. I flagged down the guy and I asked him to show me the graves of my grandparents Meyer and Goldie Cohen. He took me to the correct spot, and now I was standing there in front of them. I'd always known that Uncle Herman purchased the plot next to them. I was standing there and the cemetery guy said, "There's going to be a funeral here Wednesday [June 5, 2002]." I immediately knew. I said, "My Uncle Herman?!" He said, "We just got the call."That is how I found out: at the foot of his burial plot, which two days later was his grave. If that isn't weird ...! I was meant to find out, that's all I can say. Uncle Herman would have loved that story!

I'm the daughter of Herman's brother Aaron Cohen, and I was born in 1950. I first became aware that my Uncle Herman was in Hollywood making movies when I was a child. He always sent me the press kits of all his films, and he sent me the original script of Blood of Dracula. I was sure he wrote Blood of Dracula about the story of my mother's life because the main character was Nancy, which was my mother's name. And, early in her life, she was always sent to boarding schools, just like the character Nancy in the movie. I asked him once, "Is it based on my mother's life story?", and he just laughed. But he sent me the script, which I thought was kind of strange. It was the only script that he ever sent me ... and I was a child, I was seven! And Berserk, I always thought that he wrote it about the relationship between me and my mother [laughs]. I had a terrible relationship with my mother, and she always left me. I've always told people I felt Berserk was based on my life with my mother!

Uncle Herman didn't relate much to the family, he saw them just for holidays. (But he was close to his father, and I was close to his father.) And yet he was always naming characters in his movies after family members. For instance, "Gary Droz" [Robert Shayne's character in How to Make a Monster] was my cousin; Richard Banks [mentioned in many Cohen pictures] was another cousin; and my cousin Jody was Jody the elephant in Berserk [laughs]! And "Gail" (named after me) was the girl who got knocked off with the spiked binoculars in Horrors of the Museum! As a kid, I was horrified! That, by the way, was a picture that scared me to death. For years, I slept with the covers over my head, thinking that a blade was gonna come chop off my head. It is true! It scared me enough that I really have done that. It's only been maybe in the last 10 years where I've tried to believe that a blade won't come chop off my head! It had an effect on me.

I always liked my uncle's films, and I like them particularly because of the endings with [the authority figures] standing over the dead bodies of the monsters. I like those reflective, symbolic moments. Those were in his films, from I Was a Teenage Werewolf on. Teenage Frankenstein ends that way, Horrors of the Museum ends that way, Konga ends that way, oh, so many. And I felt like I grew up with Michael Gough, who was in several of my uncle's pictures -- to me, he was so familiar. Seeing him in my uncle's movies was a big part of my young life. When I was a kid, he was my actor-hero.

Black Zoo with Michael Gough -- that was a big moment in my life. In 1963, for my 13th birthday, Uncle Herman brought several of the animals from Black Zoo to the house. At that time, I was living with my aunt in Oak Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, and for my 13th birthday, my uncle brought over the lion, tiger and panther. With all my friends there. Then we all went to the Fox Theater, the 5000-seat movie palace that he had purchased in 1961. (Which to me was a great thing: Here's the money he made from Teenage Werewolf, and what does he do with it? He doesn't take wonderful trips, he purchases the theater that he loved. To me, that really says a lot about his commitment.) We went in the 1920s screening room downstairs and saw Black Zoo -- a private screening. By now the lion, tiger and panther were in cages on the stage of the Fox, and the trainer let the lion out of the cage. I was terrified [laughs]! A lot of kids were there, the whole neighborhood, and to this day, none of them has forgotten that birthday party! It was in the local newspaper as well.

To me, there's a moment in Trog, a moment at the end with Joan Crawford, that I love. I have not seen the film since it came out, but I still remember that moment where she pushes away the microphone of the reporter who stuck it in her face for a comment. To me, it is one of the great moments in film, it means something to me. Basically, the film showed the cruelty of human beings. What Joan Crawford did just by that gesture was to me the triumph of individualism and individuality, and a person who cared -- she cared about Trog, she related to Trog. She did not go along with the mentality of "Trog must be killed," and she was truly saddened by Trog's death. That gesture -- I will always remember it. It has always symbolized the triumph of good.

I was never on the set of one of Uncle Herman's movies, but I would have loved to. I was in theater and I always wanted to work on films, and I definitely wanted to work on Crooks and Coronets because Dame Edith Evans was in it. I asked him, "Can I come to London and work on it?", and he said, "No!!" But he always sent me press kits!

Uncle Herman always said he never wanted pity if he had a physical illness. I was sitting on Myrtle Beach [South Carolina] and I wrote him: "You said you didn't want pity if you became physically ill, so I'm sitting here thinking about the good in your life...", and I basically told him that he achieved what he set out to do, and that was a good life to have. He sent me a birthday card this May 23, saying he liked my letter.

I talked to Uncle Herman a few days before he died. His voice had come back, after he had been through several weeks of radiation and chemo. But now the problem for him was, he had lost 40 pounds. (The last time I talked to him, he joked, "It's good I was fat, 'cause I lost 40 pounds!") He was himself. And he wasn't himself in the conversation before this one, around the time of the Oscars. Incidentally, we were always rooting for Judi Dench at Oscar time, because he had her in A Study in Terror with John Neville as Sherlock Holmes. It was one of her first films; he hired her because he admired her work on the stage. He told me he was still in touch with Judi Dench all this time, that they wrote each other.

Anyway, I talked to Uncle Herman a few days before he died, and my Uncle Al talked to him the day before he died, and he was fine, he was joking, he was positive, he felt for the first time hopeful that he might lick this cancer. He said he went into the Cobra Media office that week and worked for a few hours. At the time of the Oscars, you could not even understand him, he could hardly talk. But his voice was fine the week that he died, and I had a total, regular conversation with him. He was joking and everything. This was the week he died!

My dad talked to him too, he called Uncle Herman twice after finding out he had throat cancer. My dad and Uncle Herman, they always hated each other. (I don't talk to my father either, I haven't seen him for 25 years.) My father said something really terrible to him: He said to him, "Ha ha ha, I'M the one who smoked and you're the one who ended up getting the cancer!" -- Herman told me that's what he said. In my father's weird way, it is kind of funny. My father, he's a jerk.

After several weeks of chemo and radiation treatment, Uncle Herman's voice came back and he seemed better, and he said he went to the office for a while and worked that week. He was himself all of a sudden. Then, the tumor burst. Uncle Herman didn't want to go to the hospital [Cedars-Sinai] after that happened, by the way. Didn't want to at all. Herman's father hated doctors, and I'm sure he did too. When I was a kid, Herman's father would come to Atlanta and chase the pediatrician away when he came to the house for house calls! Uncle Herman did not want to go to the hospital, but Didier Chatelain, his business partner in Cobra Media, insisted. He went to the hospital, the bleeding was controlled, he was stabilized. Didier went out to run an errand for him, and when he came back, he found Uncle Herman in a body bag. Only an intern came out to speak to Didier, but with no real explanation as to what happened.

Anyway, there's no clarity about why Uncle Herman died. The spokesperson had told three different stories that I know of so far. I have not seen the death certificate, and I've never been told the cause of death. Didier doesn't know, either. I read several different accounts of what the hospital spokesperson said, so I called the hospital to find out the cause of death. They've been totally cruel to me, nasty. I called the hospital for three days straight -- not one person there would talk to me. I was told the senior vice president would call me back, he never did; at first, I even was refused [the chance] to speak to his secretary. I finally did get hold of the secretary, and the secretary said someone would call me. No one did. I called back twice, and they refused to let me speak to her again. The Quality Control person, I'm told, is not allowed to speak to me. The only person who's spoken to me is the hospital's lawyer, who said, "This is a very difficult situation for us." The hospital lawyer said, "There was no autopsy," 'cause there's not one allowed in the Jewish religion. I told her, "Yeah, but we can always exhume the body."

"A Hundred Years of Service" they're celebrating, it's supposed to be one of the best hospitals in the world -- and they treated me like dirt. And I am furious. I kept saying, "I want to talk to somebody in the administration, I do not want to speak to Risk Management or Quality Control," because they're just there to defend the hospital. I wanted to speak to someone in administration. They refused, they were nasty, mean, awful. It is still to be determined why he stopped breathing at Cedars-Sinai Hospital.

After he died, I was talking to a few of my old friends, and they all said they want to donate money in his memory, just based on that 13th birthday party with Black Zoo and the animals. They had never forgotten it, it had been a special part of their lives, and they were telling me, "Where can we donate money in his memory?" It was all based on that birthday party that they were at, as kids, in 1963.

Here was a person who, as a boy in Detroit, dreamed of making films. And he had his dreams realized. He always knew what he exactly wanted to do, and he did it. At age 18, Uncle Herman was the youngest person ever to become manager of a theater -- the local movie theater, the Dexter, which he worked at since he was 12, and then he was assistant manager of the Fox Theatre after WWII, and then he left Detroit and went out to Hollywood and made films -- he produced, wrote and distributed them. And even acted in some of them; like Hitchcock, he often made an appearance in his films. He did what he set out to do. I think that his life serves as an inspiration for people, to know that they can achieve their dreams. He loved making movies, he loved the film industry, and he worked in it to the last week of his life.

For me, there was no greater horror than seeing my uncle's body lowered into the ground. I thought of all that energy he had, his magnificent voice, his strong opinions and his wonderful sense of humor. But he had a good life, he really did. At his funeral, the whole eulogy was that he lived life on his own terms. And that was true.

I hope those of you reading this will go to the film Websites, and look up the films, career and interviews with my Uncle Herman Cohen. I hope you, your friends and colleagues will take a moment to remember him and his work. I hope teachers of film will take the time to find out more about him and his life in film, and on behalf of film. In his memory, I hope you will let the young and new voices in film know of the films of Herman Cohen, the man who achieved the dreams of his boyhood in Detroit.

Tom Weaver is the author of I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers, Science Fiction Confidential: Interviews with 23 Monster Stars and Filmmakers and many others available from McFarland & Co.

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