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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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Cohen talks


"I killed nobody that didn't deserve killing. In all of these here killings there was no alternative. You couldn't call them cold-blooded killings.... It was either my life or theirs."    

Mickey Cohen
 
 

1957_0519_mickey_cohen_2 May 19, 1957
Los Angeles

I suppose in hindsight it's easy to see why interviewing Mickey Cohen on live television was a bad idea. But at the time, as Mike Wallace admits, it seemed like a wonderful coup against the competition.

If you don't know anything about Cohen, you might not understand what an outspoken and profane man he was. But Wallace certainly knew. And those viewers who skipped Dr. Joyce Brothers on the "$64,000 Challenge" experienced an obscene tirade from the little mobster.

Unfortunately, the original newspaper accounts give very little of Cohen's remarks except to say they were unprintable. "Cohen was interviewed over a national ABC network show last night and admitted he has killed at least one man in self-defense," The Mirror said. "He hurled a series of unprintable charges against [Los Angeles Police Chief William H.] Parker.

" 'Gestapo tactics' was the kindest phrase he used. The laws governing libel and slander prohibit repetition of the charges in a newspaper," The Mirror said.

But some information can be gleaned from news accounts. In addition to claiming that he had killed a man, Cohen said his gambling operations once handled $600,000 in bets and that politicians needed him at election time and allowed him to operate with impunity.

He also said: "My sources of power were higher than former Mayor Bowron's and former Police Chief Horrall's."

Former Mayor Fletcher Bowron, who had returned to the Superior Court bench after being elected mayor in the 1938 recall of Frank Shaw, said it was beneath his dignity to respond to Cohen's allegations. Former Chief Clemence B. "Jack" Horrall, who headed the LAPD during World War II, said Cohen operated in the county rather than the city. "He tried to operate in the city and we ran him out," Horrall said. "Cohen's a liar."

1957_mike_wallace But ABC-TV made a critical error. Recall that this was before the days of videotape. Instead, shows were preserved on kinescopes in which a movie camera filmed images on a TV picture tube, and these were shown on the West Coast three hours later.  Although ABC executives had no idea what Cohen was going to say on the live show, they were well aware of Cohen's comments and decided to proceed with the West Coast broadcast three hours later.

Former Mirror reporter Cliff Dektar, who was handling publicity for ABC in Los Angeles, recalls watching the show with The Times TV critic at the network's studios:

"I hosted Cecil Smith, Times TV  critic at the ABC TV Center executive viewing room, Prospect and Talmadge.

"Outrageous, and the phone rang. It was lawyer in NY. l say nothing (there is a reporter sitting next to me).

"Parker and [Police Capt. James] Hamilton (the intelligence squad captain) gave ABC and WC head Earl Hudson opportunity to cancel  WC repeat (kinescope) and get out trouble...Mr. Hudson declined and Hamilton won a major slander suit against ABC.

"It was a most interesting event...oh yes...took Cecil and his wife to dinner following
."

Parker was furious, and turned down a network offer to respond on Wallace's show the next week. "That sort of thing is more insidious than Confidential," Parker said. "You have to go down to the newsstand to buy a magazine and you get this in your living room."

"As a police officer, I am used to being shot at. But how can a person like Cohen be allowed to assassinate my character?" Parker said.

ABC issued an apology the next week, but the controversy continued.

Watch Mike Wallace's interview about the Cohen incident.

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Comments (1)

It is hard for those of us who were not around then to understand the power that Chief Parker and the LAPD had over the news media at that time. The Cohen interview, it appears, was a scoop of the highest order. I am assuming that ABC was apologizing more for the character assassination than for the profanity. But anyone in the chief's position ought to have expected someone like Cohen to say outrageous things. It is difficult to tell, from our perspective today, how much of this was Parker being overly thin-skinned about his and the department's image, as opposed perhaps to public officials considering network interviews to be a lot weightier with the public than they might today, maybe because network TV was more influential then.

--The original Cohen kinescope is available on the DVD that accompanies one of Mike Wallace's books. I haven't seen it. If you watch the Mike Wallace interview you'll find that Cohen was considered a "get" and a real coup for the show, and Wallace was obviously trying to be provocative.

There's much more about Chief William H. Parker and the LAPD coming up later in the blog. Stay tuned....


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