BY CAROLYN JOHNSON
Nyack resident Bern Cohen admits, at the risk of sounding immodest, that he was an outspoken high school principal. Cohen was such an effective principal that, during the Mayor Dinkins administration, he was recruited to train principals in failing high schools throughout New York City. He would spend eighteen months working alongside a struggling principal in a challenging school, and in this manner, helped turn around hundreds of schools. He was finally recruited to do this for Middletown High School in Rockland County, and that’s where he ended up spending his last ten years in formal education.
Since retiring as a high school principal, Cohen has had incredible success as a New York stage and film actor. He has appeared as rabbi, psychiatrist, doctor, and other characters in movies, New York theatre, commercials and print media. When asked why he thinks he is such an immediate success in a field where many talented people don’t make it, his fans pipe in, “He’s an incredible actor, with a great personality.” He notes that many actors his age who have acted for thirty years or more expect to be Sean Connery. He’s happy for small parts, which often grow into larger roles. Managers like his humble attitude. It also helps that, in addition to having at least two agents, he spends 10-15 hours per week marketing his new work.
Cohen’s vacation as educator has not ended, but has taken a creative turn as he works to bring the life and spirit of Abbie Hoffman to audiences of all ages, but particularly young adults, through his one man show “Abbie.” He frames “Abbie” as a 1987 talk Hoffman gives in the “West End Theater Sociology Lecture Series.” He wrote, helped produce and acted in “Abbie” in January at the West End Theater in Manhattan, and recently at the Nyack Center in Nyack, New York, hosted by The Rivertown Film Society and Arts Angels.
For twenty years, “Abbie” was in Cohen’s consciousness. He explains, “I read his books and realized that nobody knows the real Abbie Hoffman.” Says Cohen, “After three years of acting in New York, I got to know producers and reporters pretty well. I wanted to write “Abbie” and play Abbie on stage in New York, so I waited until I knew I could do both.”
Bern Cohen’s interest in Abbie Hoffman dates back to the sixties. As a Columbia student, Cohen met Hoffman at the student protests. Cohen physically resembled Abbie at all ages, “to the extent that no month passed without someone stopping me on the street because they were sure I was Abbie.” When Hoffman was underground, Cohen’s resemblance to Hoffman resulted in his arrest and near death when he tried to escape the pointed guns of rural Ohio police. They thought they’d found the underground Hoffman when they met Cohen in a diner. “One redneck cop targeted me, started hurting and scaring me enough to make me start a run toward the woods. As I desperately took off, he raised his rifle to aim at my back but before he could get off a shot, my colleague Rip tackled me and yelled to attract the other cop’s attention. This molded my consciousness and linked me intrinsically to Abbie.”
Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989), was the sixties activist who was a member of the infamous ‘Chicago Eight’ (later called Chicago Seven after Bobby Seale’s case was dropped) and known to many as ‘The Clown Prince of the 60s Revolution.’ Hoffman was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; a founder, with Jerry Rubin and others, of the Youth International Party (the Yippies); and one of the Vietnam war protesters charged with conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
While most remember Abbie Hoffman for his commitment to radicalism and his outrageous sense of humor, depicted in, among other films, “Steal This Movie” (2000) and “Chicago 10” (2007), his perspective and personal struggles have never been as poignantly portrayed as in “Abbie.” Abbie was entirely drawn from the books and speeches of Abbie Hoffman in which he shares his emotional challenges, his youth and family, his take on Judaism, life underground, his mental collapse and more.
“Abbie” incorporates historical footage, archived photos and the well-known VJ Morgan Freeman’s cutting edge 3D projections to create an unprecedented glimpse into the little-known personal life and struggles of the activist. The script gives us another view of Hoffman, who absorbed thousands of physical and political blows. The public “clown prince” was often privately tormented. He disappeared underground for over t10 years, living like a hunted animal. And, when Abbie came out of hiding, he led a new, very public life disguised as fictitious social activist, Barry Fried.
Hoffman’s greatest talent was for staging radical political provocations, like dropping loose bills from the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange to the crowded floor below, and letting thousands of white lab mice loose on the floor of a meeting of corporate executives, and introducing a pig as candidate for president when a suitable candidate was hard to find. He was impossible to ignore.
Audience members at the Nyack Center last week asked Cohen if he felt Abbie’s philosophy and methods would be relevant today. Cohen suspects that had Hoffman not taken his life at the age of 52, he would likely have helped to create a focused agenda for the 99 percent movement, as he had for so many other social movements in United States.
He typically made a list of demands, and worked with many different communities and stakeholders to see many of them met. He didn’t just protest for the sake of protesting; he brought attention to issues of his time and catalyzed action which often led to change. He brought together many different factions of civil rights workers, black radicals, literary people, hippies, yippies and leftists for common causes.
Bern Cohen has appeared as an actor in the films “Holy Rollers” and “27 Dresses.” He served as Director of Training for the entire New York City school system in the New York City Chancellor’s Office, and has also served as an educational consultant for National Geographic, WNET-PBS and many school districts. He hopes to continue his creative work for many more years. Further information can be found at Berncohen.com.