Christian Niedan’s Hollywood Interviews — Part Seven: The Collaborator

by: Christian Niedan

Part seven of an eight part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers and cult figures. The series continues with film producer, director, and screenwriter Larry Cohen…

One would reason that an intimidating NFL athlete would make for a peculiar muse for a film director, but Fred Williamson played that role perfectly for filmmaker Larry Cohen. Inspired by the brawny defensive back, Cohen, best known as a B-Movie auteur of horror and science fiction films during the 1970s and 1980s, cast Williamson for two pivotal blaxploitation films that helped both begin and define Cohen’s directorial career, Black Caesar and its sequel, Hell Up in Harlem. Both films were set in New York City, and Cohen gave me the lowdown about the birth of Williamson’s character during a 2011 interview for my film website, Camera In The Sun:

Larry Cohen:Black Caesar was originally commissioned by Sammy Davis Jr., who wanted to do a picture in which he was the star, instead of being a flunky to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. So I suggested that they do a gangster movie like Little Caesar, since he was a little guy, and so was Jimmy Cagney, and so was Edward G. Robinson. And I thought he could play a little hoodlum working his way up in the Harlem underworld. They liked the idea, so they commissioned me to write a treatment for $10,000. But when I finished writing the treatment, they did not give me the money. They said Sammy was in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, and didn’t have $10,000 to give me. So I ended up with the treatment and no money. And then when I ran into Mr. [Samuel Z.] Arkoff, who was the President of American International, he told me he was looking for an action movie that could star a black actor. And I said, ‘Wait a minute,’ and ran downstairs to the car and got the treatment, and came up with it, and we had a deal that afternoon. So, that’s how it came about. And then it was supposed to be Harlem, so obviously that’s New York, so we shot a great deal of the movie in New York. Although we did shoot some interiors in Los Angeles.”

“Fred [Williamson] loved the script and he loved the opportunity. He’d been in other films. He’d been a regular on the TV series Julia, and he had made some movies before, so he was a viable candidate for the part. He was a kind of a name actor for the black exploitation-type film. And that’s what they called these pictures at the time, although I think every movie is an exploitation film. You’re trying to sell your tickets to your audience, so every movie has that element of exploitation. You publicize it. You promote it. You try to get people to pay to come in and see it. So I don’t see what was any different about having a picture that would be geared to black audiences. As a matter of fact, they had been denied the opportunity to see their people in heroic leading roles in movies, or anything glamorous or slick. Usually, they always had been pushed into the roles of servants or sidekicks. Or even as I said, Sammy Davis Jr. was playing a flunky. You know, in Ocean’s Eleven he was playing a garbage man. I mean, it’s disgraceful if you think about it.”

“Fred was totally different than what Sammy would have played, because Fred was a handsome leading man. He looked great in the clothes, and he looked great in that hat that I put on him. And he could strut through Harlem, and he looked like the Godfather of Harlem. And when we went to shoot there originally, there had been another film shooting there called Across 110th Street, with Anthony Quinn. They had gone up to Harlem with all kinds of trucks, portable dressing rooms, portable toilets, and all kinds of equipment, and blocked up the streets and caused a lot of disruption. And they had been shaken down by the local gangsters in Harlem to pay them rather substantial fees in order to shoot on the different streets. So when I showed up with my small crew to shoot Black Caesar, we were immediately surrounded by these black gangsters who said, ‘You can’t shoot here unless you pay us.’ And I didn’t have any money to pay them, so I looked at them and I said, ‘Hey, can you guys act? I think you guys would be great to play Fred Williamson’s gangster sidekicks, and I’ll put you all in the movie.’ So the next thing you know, they’re all in the movie, and I was shooting any place in Harlem I felt like. And these guys were great. Anything we wanted, anything we needed to get, they got for me. We kind of owned Harlem after that. And then when the picture finally opened, I put them in the poster too, so that the advertisements in the paper had these guys in it. And opening day at the Cinerama Theater on Broadway, these gangsters were down there in front of the theater signing autographs.”

Following its release in February 1973, Black Caesar proved a financial success, which posed an unexpected screenwriting problem for Cohen:

Larry Cohen: “The picture did so well that they called me immediately and said, ‘You’d better get a sequel going before these actors decide they want an enormous amount of money to reappear.’ So I said, ‘You know I don’t have a script, but I can start shooting something, and make it up as I go along.’ That’s more or less what we did. We started almost immediately, and went back to Harlem. We still had our gangster friends up there, and they looked out for us, and got us the locations, and provided us with the protection we needed. The protection we needed wasn’t necessarily against gangsters. It was against teamsters and members of the unions that didn’t like non-union movies shooting in New York. And they would follow us up to the locations and try to stop the production. Except they wouldn’t follow us up to Harlem. When we got to 125th Street, the teamsters all turned back and left. They weren’t going to venture into Harlem, because they were mostly white guys, mostly Irishmen, and were not going to venture into that area that they felt unwelcome in.”

“The second picture Fred was doing was That Man Bolt at Universal. He’d been hired to do this kind of a James Bond movie, and he was working five days a week at Universal. I was shooting another picture too called, It’s Alive for Warner Brothers. And I had a crew, and I said to Fred, ‘How about working for me on Saturday and Sunday?’ So I had to get the crew to agree to work two extra days a week, so they ended up working a seven-day week working for me — five days a week on It’s Alive, and two days a week on Hell up in Harlem. And we shot most of Fred’s stuff out in California. Then I went to New York, and got a double to look like Fred from the back — although Fred thought the guy’s ass was too big, and he was complaining. Anyway, we shot most of the stuff in New York with the double, and then we came and shot the reverses back in California. I knew exactly what angles I needed, what shots I needed, what cuts I needed. So I had it all in my head, and I could do it. Probably no one else could have done it. But I was able to pull it off, because I writing the script as I was going along, and I knew exactly where I needed to put Fred in the scenes. So, we shot in Harlem. We shot in Harlem Hospital. We shot in a coal yard up in Harlem. We shot over there by the East River under a railroad bridge. We shot on 125th, and all around the key places, and torn-down buildings, and wreckage of buildings. We went back to where we had shot the ending of the first picture, and picked it up from there with the double — and then we put Fred in. So it’s interesting to watch the picture to see where Fred is, and where the double is. To this day, Fred claims he was in scenes he wasn’t in. It even fooled him. But one of the kicks of the whole thing was to be able to finesse this thing so that you create something that was never really there. In the eyes of the audience, they see something that didn’t really exist, but you made it exist on film.”

I first saw the name “Larry Cohen” in the credits for 1988’s Maniac Cop and 1990’s Maniac Cop 2, as their writer and producer. In 2013, I interviewed the director of those films, William Lustig, and asked him about collaborating with Cohen:

William Lustig: “Larry Cohen’s a great storyteller. His love of movies came from him watching ’30s and ’40s films out of Hollywood — particularly film noir, B movies. He really has a great love and affection of the kind of quirky storytelling that you found in those kinds of movies. So he really, really knows how to write a story. The lottery ticket scene in Maniac Cop 2 was a brilliant idea. That was all Larry. Again, he has a comedic element to him where he finds the humor in juxtaposing different things in different ways.”

“The truth is, Larry really had zero involvement in production. I think of all the Maniac Cop films, he showed up a total of about two hours on the first Maniac Cop, just to say ‘Hi.’ But he really had no involvement with the films, beyond the script stages. There was a now-defunct film laboratory in New York called TVC. The president of the company was kind of a New York street guy. He liked Larry and I, and kind of thought that we were two peas in a pod, and decided to arrange for us to have breakfast together. We met, and I was a Larry Cohen fan, so there was no arm twisting on my end. And it was a few years after that when we met again, and the idea of Maniac Cop came out of that next lunch. Really, Maniac Cop came out of the idea that Larry said, ‘How come you never made a sequel to Maniac?’ And I said, ‘Well, I just never thought the movie was something you can make a sequel of.’ At the time, there were successful films like Beverly Hills Cop, Robocop, a few others. So he just blurted out, ‘What about Maniac Cop?’ And it just struck me as being such a great title. Then we kicked around some ideas, and there had been a copy line for Dirty Harry in Scandinavia, which was to the effect of ‘You have the right to remain silent…forever.’ Why don’t we put that with Maniac Cop? Nobody’s heard that copy line in this country. And that was it.“

While Cohen and Lustig’s careers continued to intersect, so did Cohen and Fred Williamson’s. In 1996 they teamed up once again on the film Original Gangstas, as Cohen recalled:

Larry Cohen: “Years passed after we did Black Caesar and Hell up in Harlem, I always stayed friendly with Fred. The pictures went into profits, so I was constantly sending him checks over the years for his share of the profits. So we got along fine, because I don’t think he ever got any profits from anybody else. People ordinarily don’t get profits from movies, but with this one he did very well. So as time went on, we remained cordial. Then I got a call from Fred out of the blue, saying he wanted to make a picture up in Gary, Indiana about a bunch of ex-gang members who return to Gary and find themselves facing the new gangs that have sprung up, which are much more violent and deadly than his gang ever was when he was a kid. So he’d already had a script written on it, he had a screenplay, and he wanted me to direct the picture. So that was how it came about, and the reason why he picked Gary is because that’s the town where he grew up. He came from Gary, and his mother still lived in Gary. He was never able to get her to move out of there. She’d had her house there in Gary, and she’d lived there all her life, and she wasn’t about to move — even though the area was terrible. There was rampant unemployment. There wasn’t even a bank where you could cash a check. You had to go to a check-cashing store and pay an exorbitant fee. And everybody was locked behind glass, and to get into the place you’d have get through a buzzer system. I mean, there were so many burglaries and so many robberies. It was such a crime-ridden area, and everything was ruled by gangs. The murder rate was probably the highest in the United States, and maybe it was the highest in the world at that time. That was before Mexico came in and claimed that title. There was a lot of violence down there, and when Fred told me he wanted to shoot the picture in Gary, I had my second thoughts about it. I said, ‘I don’t mind making a movie like this, but to shoot it in a gang capital — who knows who’s gonna get angry at you? You know, people can lose their temper very easily, and they have very violent reactions out there.’ Well, we were gonna use real gang members in the picture playing members of the gang, use real gang people on the crew, and provide some employment for the people down there. So I said, ‘This is great, let’s go down and have a look at it.’ So we went down and checked out Gary, and it was very run down and depressing. But it fit the movie, and Fred was adamant about shooting it there. So I said to him, ‘Look, I’ll do it.’ But I really didn’t think he’d ever come up with the money to make the picture. I didn’t expect it would really happen. Many deals like this are proposed, and very few of them come true. But lo and behold, he showed up with the money, and said he had the funds to make the picture. And I couldn’t back out of it. I didn’t want him to lose the deal, so I just went ahead with it, and we went down there and shot the picture. Unfortunately, we got down there in the summer, and it was extremely hot. I mean, the average temperature was one hundred degrees, so it was murder down there, and naturally everything was just desolate. There were a lot of burned-up buildings, and a lot of torn-down structures, and a lot of empty places. And Fred had gotten an entire city block which was abandoned, which had homes on it, and he had gotten permission to blow them all up. So they wanted to get rid of these places anyway, and they were empty, so what we did was we brought in a crew of people to paint them and put curtains in the windows and put little bicycles on the front lawn, and spruce the whole place up so the whole block looked like it was inhabited. And then one night, we just blew the whole place to smithereens. As a matter of fact, when that explosion went off, we were a couple of blocks away and I got a sunburn from the explosion. It was a much bigger explosion than we’d counted on, but it was great. It looked fabulous, and we blew up this whole block. And we had these kids, and they were gang members who came every day to work. They were always on time. They did everything they were asked to do. You know, if you wanted to shoot them and have them fall down, they did falls. They did anything you asked, and they were very friendly to me. They used to come to my trailer and bring me Famous Amos cookies, things like that. They did their best to ingratiate themselves. I was not concerned with the ones we hired, but with the ones that didn’t get hired. I thought, ‘Well, now one of the ones that didn’t get hired might just drive by one day with a machine gun or something, and polish us all off in one afternoon.’ But it never happened. Everything was fine there for the entire shoot of the picture, and they were all very cooperative and pleasant. And then it was all over, and we left. And it was kind of sad, because while we were there they all had jobs, and they had some place to go every day, and they had some focus and some reason for being. Then when we left, we kind of just abandoned everybody. And there’s nothing we could do about it. We couldn’t take them back to Hollywood. That’s where they lived, so there’s nothing we could do. Well, within two weeks after we left, the National Guard had to come in there. There was so much violence. They started killing each other right and left as soon as we were gone. So I felt there was a movie in that. A movie company goes to a gang town, and everything is great. And then they leave everybody behind, and this is what happens. You know, I felt bad about it, but there was really nothing I could do about it. You know, Gary isn’t that far from Chicago, and we have an apartment in Chicago. So I would go back to Chicago maybe on Sunday or something, the day we didn’t shoot. And then I’d come back to Gary, and then shoot the rest of the picture. And then when we left, we went back to Chicago, and that was it. We never went back to Gary again, and I haven’t been back there since. I’ve never heard from anybody in the town.”

Author’s Note (Update): The Steve Mitchell-directed documentary, King Cohen is set for a theatrical release on July 7th 2018, and a VOD release on August 14th. The Hollywood Reporter included the following details in an article about the film:

“Mitchell’s film features interviews with such industry luminaries as Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, John Landis and Fred Williamson, as well as Cohen himself. Cohen’s one-of-a-kind career, from ’60s TV series creator (Branded, The Invaders) to ’70s and ’80s independent film icon and beyond, is chronicled with freewheeling and insightful verve.”


Continue with Part Eight — The Essayist!

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