One of the 1970s' "baby moguls," Rob Cohen built a thriving career as a producer in the 1970s and 1980s. After a false start directing features in the early '80s, Cohen gave up producing in the 1990s to concentrate full time on directing, finally scoring his first bona-fide hit with The Fast and the Furious (2001).
Raised in New York's Hudson River Valley, Cohen knew he wanted to make movies by junior high school. Transferring to Harvard University in the late '60s, Cohen shot a recruiting film for Harvard's admissions office before he graduated in 1971. Cohen immediately headed to Los Angeles to work for a producer, but soon found himself unemployed when the producer went bankrupt. After a janitorial stint at an animal hospital, Cohen became a reader for then-agent Mike Medavoy. Quickly distinguishing himself by recommending the script for The Sting (1973) to his boss, Cohen moved on to 20th Century Fox Television, where he earned the title Director of TV Movies. Impressed by Cohen's accomplishments in such short time, record impresario Berry Gordy hired the 24-year-old Cohen in 1973 to be the executive vice president of Motown's nascent motion picture division. While at Motown, Cohen produced the Diana Ross soaper Mahogany (1975) and the disco cash-in Thank God It's Friday (1978), as well as John Badham's Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), a comedy about 1930s Negro League baseball. After pulling off the complicated task of producing the movie version of Broadway's The Wiz (1978), Cohen left Motown to form his own production company. Signing a pact with United Artists, Cohen's production deal morphed into directing his first film, the Harvard-set comedy A Small Circle of Friends (1980). Though A Small Circle of Friends bombed, Cohen directed a second feature comedy, Scandalous (1984); it also bombed. Chastened, Cohen returned to producing as the head of the Taft-Barish Company in the mid-'80s. Though not all hits, Cohen's 1980s track record was distinguished by its star power, including Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Running Man (1987), Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed (1987), Nicholson bedeviling Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and TV luminary Michael J. Fox's first dramatic turn, in Light of Day (1987). Cohen also sharpened his skills as a director, helming episodes of several series including the quintessential 1980s shows Miami Vice and thirtysomething.
Exiting Taft-Barish in 1987, Cohen set up a production company with Badham, producing the Mel Gibson-Goldie Hawn vehicle Bird on a Wire (1990), and the James Woods-Michael J. Fox action-comedy The Hard Way (1991). Cohen also handled the action sequences as Badham's second-unit director on The Hard Way. After parting ways with Badham in 1992, Cohen returned to movie directing with the biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993). Written by Cohen as well, Dragon earned far better notices than Cohen's prior features and helped energize Lauren Holly's career. Turning next to fantasy and cutting-edge special effects, Cohen directed the summer fable Dragonheart (1996). Though Dragonheart's titular beast Drago was the first major movie "character" to be completely digital, and also spoke in the dulcet tones of Sean Connery, Dragonheart failed to muster up blockbuster box office. Daylight (1996), a competent Sylvester Stallone action picture shot in a scale replica of a Hudson River tunnel, also became a relative disappointment. Cohen's HBO docudrama The Rat Pack (1998), however, was a succès d'estime, earning a Director's Guild nod for Cohen and numerous Emmy nominations. After his teen-oriented Ivy League thriller The Skulls (2000) tanked, Cohen managed to buck Hollywood's ageism and become a hot action director at age 52 with the sleeper hit The Fast and the Furious (2001). Centering on drag racing and starring up-and-comers Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, The Fast and the Furious drew throngs of summer moviegoers with its stylish, high-adrenaline car-chase sequences. Hoping to repeat their success, Cohen and Diesel re-teamed for the summer espionage action flick XXX (2002).