Ellis A. Cohen has produced four TV movies (1999's Dangerous Evidence: The Lori Jackson Story, 1985's First Steps, 1985's Love, Mary, 1979's Aunt Mary) and published two books (Dangerous Evidence and the novel Avenue of the Stars).
We spoke by phone November 8, 2001. After 20 years in Los Angeles, Cohen now lives in Washington D.C..
Ellis: "I'm working on a project now on the CIA that will help explain why there was another day of infamy, why we got caught off guard. Here these guys use a little imagination and destroy the world. And with all our technology, we're lost. We can't find a guy in a cave.
"I came across something about a heroic woman honored by President Clinton as a great American hero. She served the country for 15 years at the beginning of the CIA. In developing a relationship with her, I got the rights to her life and to a book she wrote and published in 1947. That book could not be published today, or any time since 1950.
"The book details how our CIA began. And Wild Bill Donovan, who started the whole thing, wrote the forward to the book.
"From there, I created a screenplay and showed it to certain key people in Hollywood. They said there are two stories there, why waste it under one? I'm on the tailend of the research and am polishing a book and movie proposal. I've been asked by CIA people to share somethings because I've soaked in, over the past 30 months, things from World War II when they started the CIA, that our CIA today didn't have a clue about. They weren't even in Afghanistan. Our intelligence agencies were asleep at the wheel like at Pearl Harbor.
"With my last book and movie, Dangerous Evidence, I sat in military courtrooms for five years covering a trial. I was there with many top journalists but none of them had any Hollywood background and none of them could do a book. They were good day to day. I was the guy from Hollywood sitting there with my cowboy boots, jeans and a tie while they're in all the typical Washington outfits.
"I like to go book to movie. I've been out there too many years selling movie proposals. If I have a book, it gives my proposal a step up. My colleagues in Hollywood take my project more seriously. A lot of people can say they're a producer. But when you say you're an author, people jump all around you.
"Only a few authors have been hands-on producers of their book, such as Michael Chricton, Lawrence Shiller, and Stephen King. Tom Clancy and John Grisham get an executive producer credit but they're not hands-on. It was thrilling for me to have close to a final say on my movie based on my book, without writing the check."
Luke: "Do you have any thoughts on how our intelligence agencies let us down so badly on September 11?"
Ellis: "I know what happened. In 1975, President Ford signed an executive order that forbade the U.S. from assassinating foreign leaders. So the CIA had to back off targeted killings. Number two, they let down old fashioned intelligence, which my new project is all about. Donovan's genius was imagination. Donovan was pro getting bad guys on the other side, with bad records, and making him a CIA agent who could join a Bin Laden group. We backed away from that. Now we're trying to get back and recruit but it's hard for us to infiltrate Al Quada late.
"I'm privy to things that I can't talk about now."
Luke: "What was the reaction like to your book Dangerous Evidence?"
Ellis: "Good. Ron Dellums, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the first African-American to hold that high a position, controlled the Pentagon budget. He loved what I did and gave me a helluva an endorsement. A letter that's been excerpted in some of our blurbs.
"Lawyer Johnny Cochran met me during the promotion of it. He hosted two Court TV shows on the case and wrote a forward to my book."
Luke: "Your 1979 movie Aunt Mary. Was that based on a true story?"
Ellis: "Yes. That was my baseball coach. I was ten years old on her team. The real Aunt Mary was alive at the time and the lead actress Jean Stapleton met her.
"Everything I've done has been based on a true story. Except my novel, Avenue of the Stars, which became real. It was based on - what if a Japanese billionaire, still filled with revenge from World War II, wants to get even and takes over a Hollywood studio. I sold it one day before Colombia was sold by the Japanese to Sony. That led Amy Archerd's column the next day because I used real names in my book like Sherry Lansing, Brandon Tartifoff.
"There's one downside to writing a novel. There's still a side of me that likes that purple prose. And I'm doing an important non-fiction story yet there's still that tendency to exaggerate. Then the journalistic side of me has to pull it back. You've got to be Jack Webb, just the facts, mam. But once you have that taste of doing the novel, you don't want to lose that taste.
"I keep wondering how many more successes do I have to have, so that I can lay back and have the next project be easier? I say that rhetorically because it doesn't get easier. Each time I'm starting all over again. The business keeps shifting. It's hard to keep alliances because people keep moving around."
I got producer Ellis A. Cohen to send me this bio:
ELLIS A. COHEN, a past Writers Guild of America "nominee" for Best TV-Movie Story and the nominee or winner of more than 20 other movie awards, as the producer, including the "GRAND PRIZE" winner at The Mifed Film Festival (in Milan, Italy), has always viewed life as an exciting challenge, with no barriers or boundaries he could not overcome. He is recognized for his many professional, civic, and personal accomplishments with his biographical profile appearing in many prestigious directories, including: Marquis Who's Who In The World, Who's Who In America (with the 2000 Millennium Edition being selected for the U.S. National Archives Time Capsule, preserved for the next 100 years), Who's Who In America (West), Hollywood Creative Directory, and the prestigious Millennium Edition of The Outstanding People of the 20th Century (published by the International Biographical Centre of Cambridge, England).
One of today's crop of "baby boomers," continuing to make news, ELLIS A. COHEN, who has worked in both New York and Los Angeles as well as in Chicago and parts of Canada, often described as a "quick study," someone who blends concepts with verve, recently relocated his business to Mt. Washington, MD - Cohen's return to his native hometown after 32-years away. He is forever appreciative that, while in New York, he enjoyed the professional and social company of three major writers that inspired him, as Cohen says, "for eternity:" Tennessee Williams (Cat on A Hot Tin Roof), Paddy Chayefsky (Network), and Joseph Heller (Catch-22).
Cohen's professional portfolio, displayed on his company's website, shows an unique range of worlds that he has travailed: from movies to politics to publishing to journalism - all with lots of panache and maximum results - very typical of Cohen. Most recently, Cohen republished his sold-out Berkley true crime book, DANGEROUS EVIDENCE: Lori Jackson's Story with a fresh new Foreword By Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., the most famous criminal and civil trial attorney in America, as a worldwide internet eBook. This was the same book story that Cohen also produced in his 1999 critically acclaimed Lifetime Cable-TV movie adaptation: Lynn Whitfield in DANGEROUS EVIDENCE: The Lori Jackson Story (seen by 75-million people).
Currently, Cohen who wears four professional hats: movie producer / screenwriter / author / investigative journalist is developing a new book he intends to also adapt as a movie that he would produce: An intriguing untold FBI - CIA true story. In his spare time, he "privately" tutors individual students in "The Art Of Writing A Saleable Movie/Book Proposal." Previously, he donned the additional hats of: magazine editor, entertainment exec, and press agent-promoter-marketing consultant. Cohen recently also added new caps to his illustrious oeuvre: as the creative consultant for the companion eBrowser software (a first for the worldwide web) that's 100% dedicated to his current DANGEROUS EVIDENCE eBook…as a legal pundit on Court-TV…and as an On-Air Spokesman for a worldwide Bill Gates' Web-TV Infomercial.
Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., as part of his endorsement of Cohen's book, wrote in his Foreword: "DANGEROUS EVIDENCE: Lori Jackson's Story relates the message that those who really want to bring about change, those who really care about their community, and those who have a commitment to judicial truth know that they must emerge to take risks, to take a stand and more importantly to take a step forward. Lori Jackson and Ellis A. Cohen are such people; they have risked harm to themselves in the pursuit of the true story and judicial equity."
And The Los Angeles Times summed-up what many national reviewers said about Cohen's movie: "It doesn't happen often, but occasionally an unheralded TV movie comes along packing an emotional punch that catches us by surprise. A case in point is DANGEROUS EVIDENCE: The Lori Jackson Story, an affecting Lifetime drama about a miscarriage of justice and the valiant woman who struggled to reverse it."
[Cohen's producing of his own book (his 4th produced movie, his 2nd published book) marked his induction into a "small club" with the likes of Lawrence Schiller, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton - authors who've fully produced their OWN book as a major movie.]
As a film producer, Cohen has been developing a slew of true stories since he arrived in Los Angeles, in 1977, from New York City. His movie projects have centered on one main central theme: Women Overcoming The Odds with his many "movie" development deals (that included stars such as: Lucille Ball & Carroll O'Connor) in association with either a production company, a theatrical studio, a TV network, and/or a cable company. During the 1980's, Ellis A. Cohen worked "exclusively" as an IN-HOUSE INDEPENDENT MOVIE PRODUCER for CBS Entertainment. Among his producing credits are his four produced movies, all high-rated and critically acclaimed, that premiered on CBS-TV (3) and Lifetime Cable-TV (1); and in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, Cohen also appeared in each one in a cameo role:
(1) DANGEROUS EVIDENCE: The Lori Jackson Story (for Lifetime Cable-TV / RATING: 3.6 "high cable") starring Lynn Whitfield and co-starring Richard Lineback and Richard Yearwood - the true story of an African-American mother and "neighborhood" grassroots activists, Lori Jackson, who, along with two fledgling attorneys, takes on the entire United States Marine Corps and their Naval investigators (the NIS) to fight for the rights of an African-American corporal who was wrongly accused, charged, and convicted of a horrendous crime he didn't commit. While Lori battles to free the innocent Marine, who was sentenced to 30 years of hard labor; she also fights to save her own life.
(2) LOVE, MARY (for CBS-TV / RATING: 33 share) starring Kristy McNichol, David Paymer and Piper Laurie, with Rachel Ticotin & David Faustino. - the true story of a delinquent teenage girl, a dyslexic, who, after learning to read while incarcerated in a state reformatory, and following an early release, battles through bureaucratic systems to earn an education and eventually becomes an award-winning medical doctor.
(3) FIRST STEPS (for CBS-TV / Mass Mutual Insurance "Special" / RATING: 28 share) starring Judd Hirsch & Amy Steel, co-starring John Pankow, John Mahoney, Megan Mullaley & Kim Darby - the true story about a quirky college professor who attaches electrodes, hooked from his computer to a paralyzed girl, getting her to walk again. NOTE: Some of this movie story was adapted from a series of stories on 60 MINUTES.
(4) AUNT MARY (for CBS-TV / Hallmark Hall of Fame "Special" / RATING: 40 share) starring Jean Stapleton and co-starring Martin Balsam & Harold Gould - the true story of a disabled, middle-aged woman who coaches Little League baseball in spite of life's setbacks.
While in New York City, during most of the 1970's, Cohen first garnered his television producer credits with two New York Area "EMMY" Awards Telecasts (as PRODUCER), for WWOR-TV, that starred Barbara Walters & E.G. Marshal, and Larry Blyden & Arlene Francis.
In 1983, Ellis A. Cohen founded his multi-media production company, Hennessey Entertainment, Ltd., a California corporation, now completing its 18th year, that produced 3 of his 4 movies. After 25-years in L.A., he recently returned to his native Maryland, where he set-up his base of operations.
As an investigative journalist, Cohen has traveled (and still does) around the globe, writing about numerous subjects - from politics to crime to entertainment. Many of his stories and work was (and still is) undercover. With many of his film projects, the ones that were produced as movies and the many that were only developed as a studio, network and/or cable "production/development deals," Ellis A. Cohen spends an extraordinary amount of time on every one, using all of his investigative skills, researching the most minuscule details. As an example, his years that he devoted to his DANGEROUS EVIDENCE project paid-off for him when he found the original lead government prosecutor who, in an "exclusive" interview, confessed that the government had known that they had the "wrong guy"and that "racism" played a big part with the conviction. Cohen's bombshell became Page One news with both The Washington Post and the Associated Press. Most recently, Ellis A. Cohen, wrote a national monthly column, "Behind The Scenes," for The Writer, a bi-monthly publication of The National Writers Union, on both the entertainment and internet worlds (many stories, "exclusive" to Cohen).
While living and working in New York City, Cohen created a national television/political magazine, TV/NEW YORK, in which he became EDITOR-IN-CHIEF of the monthly; a post he held for two years. Under his direction, he had an initial startup of 100 major advertisers with by-line articles written by the movers-and-shakers in the worlds of entertainment, politics, and media. By-Liners included: Dino DeLaurentis ("On Producing Movies On Two Continents"), Ed Sullivan ("An Examination Of The Television Business"), Geraldo Rivera ("On Investigative Reporting"), and Harry Rosenfeld ("On Being Managing Editor of The Washington Post During Watergate"), to name a few.
Cohen also interviewed the "celebrities-of-the-moment," such as: Jennifer O'Neill on the release of her box-office smash movie, The Summer of '42…Richard Roundtree on the debut of his smash TV series, Shaft…Tony Randall on the debut of his smash TV series, The Odd Couple…and Mary Tyler Moore on the debut of her smash TV series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ellis A. Cohen, prior to his New York years, also worked in his native hometown of Baltimore, Maryland in the fields of advertising and communications. Included was a stint as NEWS EDITOR for radio station WBJC-FM (with his qualifying for a "3rd Class" FCC License).
One of the many national news events that Cohen EXECUTIVE PRODUCED was a luncheon in the large Plaza Hotel ballroom for President Gerald Ford's ex-Press Secretary, Jerrold terHorst, who "quit" his top spokesman post following Ford's Presidential Pardon of President Richard M. Nixon (for Watergate). Cohen, on short notice, "booked" Mr. TerHorst and got the big three network news anchors (Walter Cronkite / CBS-TV; Frank Reynolds / ABC-TV; John Chancellor / NBC-TV) to interview terHorst in front of 1,500 SRO luncheon guests. One of Cohen's largest nighttime events, in New York City, that he EXECUTIVE PRODUCED, was a Salute to Movie Producer Robert Evans, with 5,000 "movers 'n' shakers" from both Hollywood & Manhattan in the SRO hotel ballroom. But the big news of the evening was Cohen delivering President Gerald Ford's top diplomat, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to make a "guest" appearance - flying directly back from Beijing, China after he had met with Chairman Mao Tse Tung, arranging for the president to meet with the chairman. And the key person, in the U.S. State Department, that helped coordinate the logistics for Cohen, was Lawrence Eagleberger who, also, would later become U.S. Secretary of State.
Cohen was chosen by the New York City Democratic Committee and the Democratic National Committee to PRODUCE & DIRECT the 1976 Democratic National Convention-Opening Stage Show Gala for Presidential "nominee" Jimmy Carter & Vice-Presidential "nominee" Walter Mondale. President-Elect Jimmy Carter, after he won the Presidential election, came back to New York City as he felt that the New York support, he received during the campaign, helped win his election over President Ford; and he picked 50 New Yorkers to personally thank, in-person…and Ellis A. Cohen was one of the "50." Cohen, over the years, worked with many "political people" in his producing Industry events, with either their participation and/or to discuss important entertainment policy matters.
Ellis A. Cohen was a VIETNAM-ERA "VETERAN," serving on active-duty in the United States Army & Army National Guard. He received an honorable discharge. He is a current member of: The American Legion. And, he enjoys sailing (island hopping), horseback trail riding, and watching the "Baltimore Orioles" baseball team and the Super Bowl Champs, "The Baltimore Ravens" football team.
FINALLY, Cohen, who's company motto is Creativity With Attitude™, has a few special moments that he isolates from the many others, such as: riding along with various lawmen in high-speed chases (as a part of his investigative research)…participating in two national promotions with Astronaut Alan B. Shepard,Jr…producing an event with the legendary actor John Wayne…interviewing world leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and (year's later) Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (the winner of The Noble Peace Prize), and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
In addition, Cohen also likes to brag about his "exclusive" interview with the world's preeminent heart surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey (who saved Jerry Lewis and Russian Premier Boris Yeltsen). But, with all the limelight that ELLIS A. COHEN so often has shared with the "stars" of the world, he treasures, more than anything else, the "bright lights" of his wonderful relationship and high respect that he has always enjoyed with his Parents, his BEST friends, his Dad Leonard and his "beloved" Mom Selma (who passed away, in Ellis' arms, on July 2, 1996). Still single, dedicated to both "cancer research" and "children's charities," ELLIS A. COHEN hopes to marry, someday soon, while he still seeks more "unknown" challenges throughout planet Earth and beyond, in cyberspace.
Ellis A. Cohen gave this interview to Amazon.com:
Q: How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book?
A: I was on strike, on behalf of my guild - the Writers Guild of America, West, in 1988 - and I was picketing ABC Entertainment. This was in Century City, CA on their street, Avenue of the Stars. After two hours in the hot sun - and after walking by that street sign a "million" times - EUREKA: "What a great title!" And, two years later, my first book, a novel, was published in hardback by Dutton and in paperback by Signet. Oh, I almost forgot. My novel was titled: "Avenue of the Stars." (And who says that nobody ever wins from a strike? I did, this time.)
Q: What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
A: I like authors like Dunne or Grisham. Any of their books have had a strong influence on my writing. Q: Do you meet your readers at book signings, conventions, or similar events? Do you interact with your readers electronically through e-mail or other online forums? A: With my first book, I had a multi-state book tour that was tied-in with the B. Dalton book chain. I met many people, but since it was my first book, I was new to them. Some said they knew and liked movies that I have produced for CBS-TV. And, with my second book, "Dangerous Evidence," due to some threats, I cancelled some scheduled book events. But, I did get good press: cover story in "U.S. News & World Report," a page one story in "The Washington Post," many "AP" stories (on their wires), and a 5 paragraph lead story in the nationally syndicated daily column written by "Liz Smith."