Guest Column: My First Meeting With Berry Gordy

Rob Cohen is an award-winning filmmaker responsible for multiple blockbuster hits, including ‘The Fast and the Furious,’ ‘xXx’ and ‘Dragonheart.’ His latest thriller, ‘The Boy Next Door,’ is available this week on home video. You can hear 50-minutes of stories from Rob Cohen’s prolific career – including tales from his early relationship with Michael Jackson – in his guest appearance on this week’s episode of CraveOnline’s The B-Movies Podcast.


In 1973, at the age of 23, I was Vice-president of Television Movies at Twentieth Century Fox. 13 months before I had been a struggling screenwriter and a kennel boy at the Harvey Animal Hospital on Melrose,  Before that I had been a senior at Harvard studying anthropology.

One day, Barry Diller, then head of the ABC Network, called me and asked if I had an ‘affinity’ for Motown music. My answer was rapid, rabid and true: I grew up on the Motown sound, had a crush on Diana Ross, thought Smokey Robinson was a poet and Marvin Gaye was a god. I had sex to “Let’s Get It On” innumerable times so, to me, he was the voice of god.

Diller said that his good friend Berry Gordy, founder and Chairman of Motown Record Company was on the hunt for a young executive to run his full-tilt effort into motion pictures and television. I said I would do anything to get that job. Later that day, I was given a time and an address in Bel Air, the snazziest address in Los Angeles.

A child of the 60’s, I owned one suit, a winter suit,  one tie, and drove a Toyota Corolla.

The May afternoon of my appointment was hot and humid and I had some difficulty finding the address, as Bel Air streets start and stop at will with very little logic. Being late was not an option. 

I finally found the gate, imposing like the entry to Charles Foster Kane’s digs and announced myself at the call box. After some tense moments, the gates rumbled apart and I motored up a curvy driveway looking for the house that was not immediately in view. As I came around one bend, a peacock was standing in the middle of the drive and stopped me; he fanned my Toyota. I had to get out and move him along. I had never seen a peacock in life let alone wrangled one before. Not a cooperative bird.

Upon returning to my car, I saw the house off to the left. It was made of cut stone in an English style and I pulled the car off to the side, as there was no obvious parking.

I was a kid from Cornwall, New York, population 5,000 souls. This would have been the best house on any block. I approached.

I knocked on the door. No one came.

I let myself in. There was nothing in it but pool floats, piles of towels and a wet bar. Beyond the French doors was a lovely pool. I ventured out to see if anyone was on the expansive lawns. No one.

Then I saw the house. The real house. The mansion on the hill. I was in the pool house. The real house was like its mother, same stone, same style only twenty times as large.

I felt like a fool but hell… Cornwall.

I sped up to the real house and was admitted by a white guy named Lester (“Les”) and two African-American fellows who could have been security guys as they were big and not as friendly as Les. He escorted me through the house, its décor sophisticated and comfortable, memorabilia and photos covering the walls, all documenting the amazing rise of Motown and its creator. I was in “Hitsville West,” in other words, heaven.

Les ushered me to the back lawn past the marble fountains and I saw a man in tennis togs talking on the telephone connected by a hundred foot extension chord from the house.

He was my height, like 5,’7,” bearded, and had the shoulders of an ex-Golden Gloves Boxer, which he was. He looked me over in my reddish wool suit, my bearded face, my long black hair and took it all in without breaking the rhythm of his phone conversation.

He motioned for me to take the chaise next to him. Les departed. Berry kept talking to someone, cupping his hand around the receiver and his mouth together, whispering in a growling tenor, that made eavesdropping impossible.

We were sitting in the hot sun. He was in cool white. I was burning up in a winter wool suit and tie. I began to feel the sweat forming.

He kept talking on the phone.  I took off my jacket.

He kept talking. I loosened my tie.

He kept talking. I kicked off my shoes.

20 minutes later, he hung up and turned his attention on me. “What makes a hit movie?” is all he said. No ‘hi, I’m Berry,’ just right into it.

“It’s about the concept under the story,” I said. “Fox is shooting a huge epic right now called  ’The Poseidon Adventure.’ It’s about a ship that’s turned over by a rogue wave and the survivors who were at the top in the ballroom are now on the bottom and have to make their way to the hull, many dying along the way, hoping someone is there to rescue them.”

“What’s the concept underneath that?” he inquired, truly interested.

“An upside-down universe,” I reached. “Toilets are on the ceiling. People are crashing down through skylights. But more than that, it’s a religious concept, I think. You must struggle to get to the hull and knock and hope that someone knocks back, Like a soul at the Gates. Is God going to knock back or not.”

His eyes widened in the most endearing way. “That’s really cool. I want to make movies like that.”

“So do I,” I answered, which was true. I had loved the book by Paul Gallo, the script by Sterling Silliphant, all of which I had read because of my tenure at Fox. The sets were amazing. The cast was studded with names and the scale was immense for that time (1972/73).

He never mentioned my striptease. 

We continued to talk from 3pm ‘till 11:30 that night. We ate a plate of food in the kitchen sitting on stools at the granite island in the middle. We talked and talked and talked. 

He was one of my culture heroes and he was so warm and alive and enthusiastic about ideas, about people, about movies. 

I got the job and went to work for him two weeks later after I sorted out my four productions shooting at Fox (“Ordeal” ABC, ‘Terror on the Beach’ CBS, “Mrs. Sundance” ABC and “Stowaway to the Moon” for CBS Playhouse).

I became the Vice-President of the Motion Picture Division of Motown Record company and remained there for five rich, productive years while I produced seven movies: “Mahogany,” directed by Berry Gordy, with Diana Ross. Billy Dee Williams, Tony Perkins, ‘”The Bingo Long Traveling All-stars,” the first feature of director John Badham with Billy Dee, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor,  “Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime” with Billy Dee Williams and Art Carney for NBC, “Almost Summer” for Universal, “Thank God It’s Friday” with Debra Winger, Jeff Goldblum, Donna Summer, and The Commodores all making their debut, “The Wiz” directed by Sidney Lumet with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horn and Richard Pryor; Musical director Quincy Jones, the place where Michael Jackson and Q first worked together, a relationship that changed musical history, and, finally, “A Small Circle of Friends” with Brad Davis, Karen Allen, Shelly Long and Jamison Parker, my own directorial debut for United Artists.

Then it was time to move on. When I told Berry, he said, “I knew you would leave some day. I just didn’t think it would be this soon.”

I love him still. He’s been like another father to me. For a long time, we had lunch together at his home every six months or so.  Les is still there ushering guests in. 

Berry Gordy has been my greatest mentor. The things I learned from him on a daily basis, I have applied every day for the past 37 years. 

His words, his kindnesses, his independence from all the power structures that were not of his own making, his maverick voice, his brilliant ears for tunes, lyrics, and dialog, the amazing adventures we had in Hollywood, New York, Chicago and Rome, resonate to this day.

He once sent me a framed set of photographs of us, arms around each other. The one on the left said ‘Rome, 1975;’ the one on the right was marked ‘Bel Air, 2004.’ There was a hand- written note from him that said, “You still look better than me. Love, BG.”

Six months ago, we were having our semi-annual lunch and he asked me to join him on a film on which he was working. Just like in 1973, I jumped at the chance. As we’ve worked on it, always at the same home in Bel Air, there seem to have been no intervening years. 

In his 80’s now, he is still a genius. I am still learning from him. The power of his creativity and the clearness of his vision are intact but like an aged wine, with greater body and a longer finish. 

We are working on a musical featuring a new roster of young talent. As usual with him, it’s aimed at tapping toes, snapping fingers and beating hearts. The Motown Sound for the new millennium.

I could not re-imagine my life path without him. I cannot imagine this world without him. I have met thousands of notable people over the years but there has never been, and never will be, anyone like Berry Gordy.  


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