Larry Cohen, Writer-Director of 'It's Alive' and 'Hell Up in Harlem,' Dies at 82

Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest
Larry Cohen

He thrived making low-budget horror and blaxploitation films after creating the 1960s TV series 'Branded' and 'The Invaders.'

Larry Cohen, the avant-garde writer and director who made his mark in the horror and blaxploitation genres with such innovative cult classics as It's AliveGod Told Me ToBlack Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, has died. He was 82.

Cohen died Saturday night at his longtime home in Beverly Hills, his friend Merv Bloch told The Hollywood Reporter.

The older brother of late Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen — she got her start promoting his early films — Cohen began his career by writing for television in the late 1950s, and he created the Chuck Connors-starring Branded for NBC and the cult sci-fi drama The Invaders, starring Roy Thinnes, for ABC.

More recently, the New York native wrote the screenplay for the Joel Schumacher thriller Phone Booth (2002), starring Colin Farrell.

By stocking his movies with sly social commentary and tongue-in-cheek humor, Cohen's work felt edgier and more impactful than similar low-budget fare. 

"Things were going on all over the country and the world that I wanted to try and deal with in my films," Cohen said in a 2017 interview with Diabolique Magazine. "Take [his 1985 feature] The Stuff, which was about products being sold on the market that kill people. There are still so many products like that being sold today. In those days, you still had cigarettes being advertised on television.

"Nowadays, it's not cigarettes, but it's medication that'll probably kill you just as fast. As a matter of fact, every time they advertise a different pill of some kind, they have a disclaimer afterward telling you all the side effects — like death. So, The Stuff was an allegory for consumerism in America and the fact that big corporations will sell you anything to get your money, even if it'll kill you."

Bone (1972), Cohen's directorial debut, revolved around a black thief (Yaphet Kotto) who breaks into a Beverly Hills home and holds a white couple (Andrew Duggan, Joyce Van Patten) hostage. His second feature was Black Caesar (1973), an update of Edward G. Robinson's 1931 classic Little Caesar that starred Fred Williamson as a gangster who rises up to head a Harlem crime syndicate. That led to a sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, that hit theaters just eight months later.

"Many of the films I made are extremely volatile and deal with controversial subjects like racism," Cohen said. "My first picture, Bone, is way ahead of its time — even today. When I made it in the '70s, I thought by the time we got to 2015 that racism would be finished — but it isn't.

"Now you have people being shot by cops, people shooting cops, and riots in the streets. It's the same old thing again — blacks against whites — and it's just sad that after all these years nothing has changed. Even [after] a black president and a black attorney general, it doesn't matter, we're back where we started from."

It's Alive (1974), which he wrote and directed, featured a score by composer Bernard Herrmann and creature effects by Rick Baker. Revolving around a hideously deformed mutant baby who goes on a murderous rampage, it spawned two sequels. He also wrote and produced Maniac Cop (1988), and that horror title birthed a pair of follow-ups as well.

Cohen wrote and helmed God Told Me To, a 1976 satire about people committing murders on instructions from above that starred Tony Lo Bianco and gave Andy Kaufman his first screen credit, and (1982), which transformed New York's iconic Chrysler Building into a nesting place for a winged, dragon-like serpent. 

In 2018, Steve Mitchell turned the cameras on Cohen for the documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen, and Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, John Landis and Williamson were among those with stories about the indie maverick. "Making a pretty strong case for his idiosyncratic vision and tenacity, it's likely to have moviegoers rushing to figure out where they can see obscurities like God Told Me To and Q," John DeFore wrote in his review for The Hollywood Reporter.

Lawrence Cohen was born on July 15, 1936, in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. The family moved to the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, and he would hustle movie ticket money by offering to carry groceries for tips.

Cohen graduated from City College of New York in 1963 with a degree in film studies. After landing a job at NBC as a page, he gave himself a crash course in the art of producing teleplays, and by his early 20s, he was writing television scripts.

Cohen broke into TV in 1958 with an adaptation of Ed McBain's crime novel The Eighty Seventh Precinct for Kraft Television Theatre. Over the next decade, he would pen episodes for Zane Grey TheatreSurfside 6CheckmateThe Fugitive and The Defenders.

He created Branded, which ran for two seasons (1965-66) and starred the 6-foot-6 Connors as a disgraced officer unjustly drummed out of the cavalry for cowardice. "My intellectual concept of the show is that it's like a Shakespearean tragedy," Cohen said in a 1965 interview for TV Guide. "You must have a great man to experience true tragedy. That's why I like Chuck Connors so much in this part. He's so big — he's the tallest underdog in the west." 

Cohen went on to create ABC's short-lived 1966 drama Blue Light, starring Robert Goulet as a double agent, and CBS' Coronet Blue, an offbeat 1967 drama about an amnesiac (Frank Converse) trying to unravel the mystery of who he is (the only thing he can remember are the two words of the series' cryptic title) before coming up with The Invaders.

Cohen took the idea for that one from two of his favorite 1950s sci-fi films — Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders From Mars. It was about an architect (Thinnes) who witnesses aliens landing on Earth and tries to convince everyone that there's danger ahead.

"The major thing the show had going for it is the fact that we are all a little bit paranoid and that it's easy to identify with somebody who is a single man fighting the world," Invaders producer Alan A. Armer said in a 2000 story for ClassicTVhistory.com. "I mean, that's what all real heroes are, if you look at the great myths and legends and the great stories that have been told."

Though it only lasted two seasons (1967-68), The Invaders gained cult status and paved the way for shows such as The X-Files

Cohen also created the 1973-74 ABC series Griff, starring Lorne Greene — just off his long Bonanza run — as a cop turned private eye.

Cohen's first feature screenplay was for the sequel Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966), and that was followed by scripts for Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1969), Scream Baby Scream (1969) and El Condor (1970).

In 1996, Cohen revisited his blaxploitation roots by directing Original Gangstas, an action drama that paid homage to the '70s films and featured many of that genre's stars, including Williamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Paul Winfield, Richard Roundtree and Ron O'Neal.

Cohen also wrote and directed The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), Full Moon High (1981), Special Effects (1984), Deadly Illusion (1987), A Return to Salem's Lot (1987), the Bette Davis-starrer Wicked Stepmother (1989) and The Ambulance (1990) and wrote the screenplays for Best Seller (1987), Guilty as Sin (1993) and Captivity (2007).

He penned an episode of ABC's NYPD Blue and directed for the last time on a 2006 installment of Showtime's Masters of Horror.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Cohen bought a 1929 Spanish-style dwelling in Beverly Hills built by the family of William Randolph Hearst. And like any low-budget filmmaker worth his salt, he put it to good use.

"Almost every movie I made I ended up shooting one scene in my house just for good luck," Cohen said in a 2018 interview with The Ringer. (The home that Kotto broke into in Bone was his.)

"Sometimes it was a nightclub, sometimes it was a hotel suite, sometimes it was a pool room. Whatever we needed, we had all kinds of flats outside stored away. We could put up false walls, and we could create sets without much time or effort. It was great because I didn't have to go to work in the morning. I could just get out of bed, come downstairs and direct the movie."

Famed director Samuel Fuller had owned the house before him. When he met Cohen at a party, he asked if he could bring his wife by to see it. Cohen invited them over, the two became friends and Fuller portrayed a vampire hunter for Cohen in Salem's Lot.

In 1988, he was honored with the George Pal Memorial Award by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.

Cohen was married to Janelle Webb from 1964-87, and she had a hand in many of his films, doing everything from producing and acting to writing songs for the soundtracks. His children and stepchildren — Pam, Victoria Jill, Melissa, Bobby and Louis — can be seen in dad's films. 

Cohen also is survived by his second wife, psychotherapist Cynthia Costas Cohen. She also appeared in his movies.

March 25 A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Cohen's age. According to his friend Merv Bloch, Cohen was born in 1936 and was 82 when he died.