Although he was seldom a favorite of mainstream critics, and veered widely between seriousness and satire, Larry Cohen staked his claim as one of the more successful screenwriters, directors, and producers to emerge from television in the 1950s. Born and raised in New York City, he attended City College (CUNY) and New York University, and broke into the entertainment business as a page at the NBC Building in Rockefeller Center. He wrote scripts for some of the television anthology shows of the late '50s, including Kraft Television Theatre, Zane Grey Theater, the U.S. Steel Hour, and Roald Dahl's Way Out, plus the suspense program Checkmate.
Cohen was treading water professionally, however, mostly because he was living on the wrong coast. Live television was disappearing rapidly at the end of the 1950s. Most of the best television had shifted to film, and was coming out of Los Angeles by the time Cohen was ready to move up from the anthology series. He was lucky enough, however, to get a shot writing for one of the last of the truly good, successful dramas out of New York, The Defenders. The weekly series, starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a father-and-son team of defense attorneys, was easily the most critically acclaimed dramatic program on television during the early '60s, and Cohen got to write several scripts for the series. With that under his belt, he was able to move on to other top-quality programs on both coasts, including The Nurses, Sam Benedict, Arrest & Trial, and The Fugitive.
In 1964, using the movie The Four Feathers (1939) as his initial inspiration, he conceived the series Branded. The program, a serious and often surprising psychologically oriented Western starring Chuck Connors as a cavalry officer unjustly convicted of cowardice in battle, gave the familiar genre several new twists. It also ran for two seasons on NBC and established Cohen as one of the better creative minds in television of the era. He devised other series over the next few years, including such unusual entries as Coronet Blue and The Invaders. Meanwhile, Cohen also became involved with motion pictures by way of the Mirisch brothers, for whom he conceived and wrote the movie Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966)).
On many of these shows, Cohen showed a knack, as a writer and creator, for tapping into odd, unconventional storylines. Coronet Blue quickly developed a cult following and, in fact, anticipated The Bourne Identity in its story of an amnesiac (Frank Converse) fished out of the river and caught in a web of espionage and terror. Even more unsettling was The Invaders, starring Roy Thinnes as a man who spots a flying saucer landing and is forced to spend his life convincing others of the dangers of invasion.
Cohen's writing took him into the areas of suspense (Daddy's Gone A-Hunting) and satire (Call Holme) in film and television, and he made his directorial debut in 1972 with Bone, an extraordinary satirical thriller with a strong racial edge, from his own screenplay. A year later, he made the more obvious blaxploitation title Black Caesar, and followed this up with Hell up in Harlem, both of which were very successful -- meanwhile, he continued to develop new series, including Cool Million.
Cohen was still writing for television, including episodes of Columbo (including the classic "Candidate for Crime," starring Jackie Cooper), when he went into production on the movie that would establish him as a serious horror director. It's Alive! (1974), from Cohen's own script, touched on numerous sensitive psychological points in its tale of a mutant killer-newborn, becoming not only a huge box-office success but a major cult favorite, eclipsed only by John Carpenter's Halloween a little later in the decade. Cohen followed this with God Told Me To (aka Demon, 1976) and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977). The latter, although considered the height of camp at the time of its release, did nothing to hurt Cohen's reputation among a new generation of film buffs and enthusiasts, who took to its low-budget depiction of the longtime FBI director's secret life, and ultimately came to be taken much more seriously. The film also showed, more than any other up to that time, Cohen's unusual sensibilities when it came to choosing actors and creative talent. Broderick Crawford, whose movie career dated back to the 1930s, played the title role, and former blacklistees Howard Da Silva portrayed Franklin Roosevelt and Lloyd Gough appeared in the guise of Walter Winchell, while Miklos Rozsa, who had scored the 1939 Four Feathers wrote the soundtrack. In 1979, Cohen scripted director Bill Richert's The American Success Company, an oddball comedy starring Jeff Bridges as a wimp who assumes a studly alter ego to muscle his way ahead in life.
From the outset of his career as a producer, Cohen looked for old Hollywood hands to work on his movies, as a matter of drawing on their expertise and experience and also acknowledging his own debt to their work -- he had even engaged Bernard Herrmann to write the score for It's Alive, which proved to be a selling point for the movie among more serious filmgoers. There followed a sequel to It's Alive, It Lives Again (1978), and then Ghost Story (1981), and then the screenplay to the almost mainstream I, the Jury (1982). But Cohen was back on form that same year with Q: The Winged Serpent, about a giant flying lizard beheading people in contemporary Manhattan. During the 1980s, he moved between horror and satire, even mixing the two in The Stuff (1985), a horror movie that was also a yogurt-maker's worst nightmare. Cohen wrote, produced, and directed some high-profile sequels (It's Alive 3, A Return to Salem's Lot) for television and theaters, and started another "franchise" with Maniac Cop (1988) as a producer and screenwriter. A year later, he directed The Wicked Stepmother, which became Bette Davis's final film (and employed ex-blacklistee Lionel Stander, as well as Hollywood veteran Evelyn Keyes). This picture was particularly hampered by the fact that Davis reportedly grew dissatisfied and walked out in mid-production. Cohen predicted that even if Stepmother bombed theatrically, the fact that every video store had a Bette Davis section would ensure its success - and he was right, as the picture became a cult item.
Cohen's directorial output slackened a bit in the 1990s, a period in which he did two Maniac Cop sequels and returned to television series work for the first time in years, with an episode of NYPD Blue ("Dirty Socks," which introduced the character of gay police aide John Irvin, played by Bill Brochtrup).Aside from these small screen projects, most of Cohen's helming assignments at this point were straight-to-video releases. Nevertheless, his career was far from over. His activity picked up once again during the following decade, this time in a screenwriting capacity; assignments included scripting the Joel Schumacher nail-biter Phone Booth and the Roland Joffe torture porn opus Captivity (2007), and authoring the screen story for the Kim Basinger-Chris Evans thriller Cellular (2004). In 2009, Cohen penned the screenplay for the offbeat suspenser Messages Deleted, about a screenwriting prof forced to live out a student's narrative ideas.
Cohen work also kept getting revived and unearthed by new generations of viewers and producers, and its best attributes kept rising to the surface -- there was still, as of 2005, talk of adapting The Invaders as a feature film, and Coronet Blue was mentioned on the pages of the New York Times in 2004, 37 years after it was last seen. 2008 was a particularly noteworthy year for Cohen, when It's Alive got picked up for a remake by director Josef Rusnak and Chris R. Notarile remade Maniac Cop as a short. Events such as these demonstrated Cohen's level of ongoing, seemingly constantly renewing success and recognition -- for old and new projects -- that was wholly unique in his generation.