Talk About an Actor Being Well-Networked
* No one is more surprised than Scott Cohen that he has roles in CBS' 'Perfect Murder,' NBC's '10th Kingdom' and ABC's 'NYPD Blue.'
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
LONDON -- Scott Cohen has been described as having a sort of Al Pacino-Jack Nicholson look and sensibility--dark, intense and a little unhinged--except that he's 6 feet 1 and in his mid-30s. And after years of obscurity, laboring in the acting trenches, the New York stage actor is suddenly very visible with projects airing on three networks this month. On Sunday he's playing opposite himself in two much-hyped network sweeps projects: NBC's 10-hour fairy tale "The 10th Kingdom" and CBS' four-hour miniseries "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," about the investigation surrounding the JonBenet Ramsey murder. For NBC, he plays a darkly romantic fantasy character named Wolf. Over at CBS, he's about as real as it gets as Boulder detective Steve Thomas, who was convinced Patsy Ramsey killed her daughter.
Earlier this month, Cohen began making waves as an alcoholic detective with Kim Delaney in a three-episode story line on ABC's "NYPD Blue" that will conclude tonight. There are rumors that the chemistry between the two actors may get him additional runs on the show.
"Scott is extraordinary," says "NYPD Blue" co-creator and executive producer David Milch. "For me, the most interesting kind of actor is one that when you see him, you don't know what's coming. Scott's not predictable.
"He conveys a kind of moral complication you don't see often. It's very rare that an actor can sustain that kind of ambiguity and still be engaging and be one you want to follow. Usually anyone who reaches that level of performance becomes a villain. Scott walks a very fine line. We haven't seen the last of him on 'NYPD Blue.' "
Cohen is bemused by his sudden popularity after more than a decade of struggling. "There were times when I really wished I could do something else," says the actor, who graduated from State University of New York at New Paltz. He has worked with Joanne Woodward at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, Angelina Jolie in "Gia" and Calista Flockhart at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass.
Only in the past five years through his acting has he supported his wife, screenwriter Ana Traina, and their 4-year-old son, Liam. Before that, he made ends meet as a substitute teacher, photographer's assistant, bike messenger, toy demonstrator and waiter.
"I served Al Pacino a cappuccino when I was working at Jerry's in SoHo," Cohen says. "He gave me a $5 tip."
But everything changed 18 months ago when his agent read the 500-page manuscript for "The 10th Kingdom."
"He thought I was perfect for Wolf," Cohen says, referring to the show's romantic lead, a darkly handsome half-man, half-wolf. "Other characters use part of you, but Wolf encompassed everything I am--anxious, neurotic, intense, romantic, subtle, complicated. I knew they'd never cast me. They'd want a star."
Meanwhile, in London, "10th Kingdom" writer-producer Simon Moore and co-directors David Carson and Herbie Wise worried they would never be able to find the right Wolf.
"He had to be romantic and have the capacity for being funny," Wise says. "He had to have this animal interior without offending anyone. Jack Nicholson is too old, but that's the way it ought to be. Then David and I met Scott, and we both liked him."
Adds Moore, "Scott has such extraordinary energy as a character. To have someone psychopathic as a romantic lead. He doesn't know if he wants to make love with Kimberly Williams or eat her. Scott can play it straight, but he has a slightly wild quality."
One of five children of a jazz musician and a teacher, Cohen has come to semi-stardom via a circuitous route. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be a musician," he says, "but I didn't have the discipline. In college, I took a course in clowning and became a circus clown. My teacher had a theater company, and I auditioned and got in."
Returning to New York, he became a member of the Actors Studio. He made his film debut in "Jacob's Ladder" and went on to appear in "Private Parts," "The Mambo Kings" and two independent films directed by Seth Rosenfeld, "A Brother's Kiss" and the upcoming "King of the Jungle." TV viewers may recognize him from the current Volkswagen Passat commercial, where his flirtation with the woman in the next car ends when a child's toy hits the dashboard.
"I've gone through periods of thinking about quitting acting," Cohen says. "I spent seven years auditioning for 'Law & Order' and never got on the show. I remember going up for a pilot a few years ago for ['Law & Order' producer] Ed Sherin, and I thought I wasn't as good as I should have been. I met my wife afterward and wept uncontrollably, telling her, 'This will never happen. If I can't measure up to my own expectations, how will I measure up to anyone else's? I'll never amount to anything.' Twelve hours later I got a call, saying, 'They loved you.' "
He didn't get the role, but six months later Sherin remembered him and cast him in "Law & Order's" Emmy-winning trilogy, "Judgment in L.A." He played an ambitious film director who murders his wife.
Cohen hasn't shed any tears recently. In fact, when he got "The 10th Kingdom" role, he decided it was time to spruce up his wardrobe. "I had these 8-year-old black shoes that I'd worn holes in walking to auditions all over Manhattan," he recalls, "and I decided to throw them out. My wife said, 'Don't. Those are the shoes that got you where you are. It's powerful to see what comes from the result of a struggle.'
"So I kept them. I might need them again."