Lots of child actors end up in rehab, but only a few go onto successful adult acting career. Jeff Cohen parlayed his young acting talents (most notably, Chunk from The Goonies) into a successful career as one of LA’s top entertainment lawyers and his own firm, Cohen Gardner LLP. I sat down with him to discuss the old Goonies crew, how his clients get a kick out of having Chunk represent them, and how a flash mob formed in college to force him into doing the ol’ Truffle Shuffle.
Lets talk about your career. I usually ask people about their first job out of law school, but I think it makes sense to start before that in your case? First acting job?
I was on a kid’s show in Cincinnati called the Uncle Al Show. But I was more a participant. I’m from LA, I was visiting my relatives. I was 6 years old.
Were you pushed by your parents or were you clamoring for the stage?
I was just kind of a natural clown, and when I was seven, they sent my picture in to a game show called Childs Play, which taped in LA. Kids would describe words without seeing the word and an adult would try and guess them. I interviewed a pilot that Ron Howard shot, called Little Shots, for NBC, I guess I was eight. That was my first real gig.
How did you land the part in Goonies?
I had already been acting for a few years at that point, my agent sent me in, I met with the casting director, and then Richard Donner and Spielberg, and they picked me up.
Did you have a sense of how big this was gonna be?
I was excited for sure.
Everyone wants to know about the Goonies. You got to work with Spielberg? Richard Donner?
They are both great. Richard Donner is still a friend today and a mentor to me. He taught me a lot about the other side of show business. I love entertainment and I love art and I think the experience of being in front of the camera and understanding how that works is crucial to what I do now. For me, entertainment law is not only academic. You know how fragile these deals are and how people’s personalities and egos are so wrapped up in them, and how important this was to people, and its not just academic. It’s something I’ve experienced.
Do you feel like you get it from that side and your clients have a sense that you sort of get them because of your experience?
I think there are certain things that a performer goes through whether they are eight or 80: the auditioning, the vulnerability, and the laying it all on the line, just being exposed to create something. I think that the clients really appreciate that and it’s somewhat unique for our firm
Are you still in touch with any of the old child actors?
Yes, I’m still friends with Sean and Josh and Ke. Out of everyone, me and Dick Donner are really close. He actually got me my first entertainment job. He spoke to Ron Meyer at Universal when I still in law school, Universal Studios Television Production.
That’s a pretty good reference! Why do you think so many child actors have such a hard time adjusting?
I think being a performer is difficult. You have to be very vulnerable. It comes with the territory. Whether you are an actor, a comic, a writer or director. I think why a lot of child actors run into trouble because when you’re an actor, you have to be someone else, and when you’re a child, you have to figure out who you are. So you’re put in this situation where you have to be someone else and you don’t get a chance to grow into your own being. I think child actors sometimes miss that step. Which is “Wait who am I, what am I all about, what do I want?” Then you create your psyche about who you are, and then it’s more reasonable to be like this is who I am, and then you can step into these characters. I think you miss that step. That’s my dime store psychology take on it.
It does seem like you are the exception, what is your secret?
In my case, when I hit puberty, I looked different. I couldn’t get work anymore. In a way, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Then I find all these other things through academia. I went to Berkeley. I can study political science and literature and business. There is a whole different world out there. I got out of LA. I think what saved me was school.
Did you always think law was something you wanted to get involved with?
For me, I always loved entertainment and art when I was a kid, and as an actor growing up, I wanted to be one of the Little Rascals, I loved Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges.
When I got older, through the mentorship of Richard Donner, learning about the other side of the business, I got a new set of heroes. I learned about Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Carle Laemmle, and David Geffen. Then I was like, there’s a whole other aspect to entertainment. This was intriguing to me. Then I start studying those figures and what kept showing up were deals. When I went through and looked at the people I respect in show business, whether it’s a producer and agent and executive, the common denominator was a law degree. That’s the underpinning of the business. Its show and business, and the business side is ultimately contracts.
So where did you do your schooling?
Berkeley Undergrad, UCLA Law School. Richard Donner was kind enough to speak to Ron Meyer and land me an internship at Universal Worldwide TV Production.
First law job?
Proskauer. Great firm, but not a great match for me. I was in the corporate department. Great training, but I knew I wanted to do entertainment.
Did you have a goal laid out that you wanted to start your own firm?
I wasn’t certain, I knew that I loved entertainment. I knew I liked working with people in entertainment; even the people you are fighting against are fun, in a weird way.
So I made friends with a guy named Jonathan Gardner, who was an attorney at Universal. After I graduated I was like it would be great to have my own firm, and Jonathan had a similar vision. So we started our own firm 2002, 2 years out.
Because my background is as a performer, we wanted a firm that really respected the artist and understood these deals weren’t just academic, they represented these people and their lives and their vision and their art and their livelihood . . . it needed to be treated very seriously and very delicately.
So it seems like a pretty meteoric rise, Hollywood Reporter just named you one of the Top 35 Executives Under 35 and you’ve been featured in Variety? How did that come about?
I think that when you’re an actor, the trick showbiz does to you is they limit your info. You’re a performer; they want you to perform, so they tell you what you need to perform. What’s different about being a lawyer—trying to be a good one—you need to all the info, and the way we do that is by having diverse clients. We have actors writers, directors, comedians, musicians, digital artists, media companies, corporate clients, publishers, precisely because having information about all different types of transactions allows us to negotiate any specific contract with greater vision for deal and the possibilities of what can occur. It’s been our business model to be diverse and that’s paid off, and the trades recognized it with the accolades, and that was great.
How would compare the success as an entertainment lawyer to your success as a child actor?
It’s very different. It’s hard to explain. There is a universal feeling of knowing when you’re good at something. But as a performer you have a direct relationship with the audience. As an entertainment lawyer, the thrill is helping an artist achieve his goals. When you are working with talent from any early stage and they become wealthy, its nice. Like when you see their vision impact the audience and they become rich and famous. When you have a film connect, it’s very rewarding.
You were just at Cannes, It seems like you’re on the scene a lot, traveling the world. Tell us about that?
Part of the fun of the business is that it’s so international now; we have European clients, Asian clients. That’s part of the fun of the job. We actually host the “10 Comics to Watch” party with Variety at the Montreal Comedy Festival every year as well. Cannes is the best, it’s a marvelous festival, and it’s exciting to see talent from all over the world. People in France are so passionate about film, they lose their minds. Montreal, comedy is a big passion of mine. To get to see new talent in the comedy space is exciting for me.
Have you ever felt the itch to get back on stage?
Being an actor is great; it’s a noble profession. I really enjoy being an entertainment lawyer. There’s a lot of upside: you don’t have to audition and you still get to go to the parties. I have a tremendous respect for my acting client,s and its very difficult, but I am happy and I love being behind the scenes. That’s where I belong.
I have to say, you look totally different.
That’s a good thing!
Do people come up to you? How would anyone even know who you are?
The clients get a kick out of it, but with my crew at any meeting I’m at, I’m the fifth most famous guy in the room. Nobody is too bowled over by my acting career.
I am, this is my childhood. I saw you just had your 25th anniversary. What is it about Goonies? Its such a timeless cult classic, what do you think it is?
Goonies fans are passionate. I get a kick out of it. People watch the movie with their kids. The interesting part for me, Richard Donner let kids be kids. He wanted us to talk how kids talk and do a lot of improv. Even though its an older picture, its universal because its just kids being kids.
Three things you cant live without?
Netflix, Variety, and Lagavulin.
Book you’re reading right now?
History buff or is that useful for your job?
Genghis Khan was mobile, agile, and hostile. Ha, I think it’s helpful to study that as entertainment lawyer.
What does it take to have your own successful entertainment firm?
I think you have to love what you fight for.
One piece of advice for those bitter lawyers out there?
“My advice to you is not inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate” –Thornton Wilder
Do people ask you to do the Truffle Shuffle? I told myself I would resist asking you to do it.
After Goonies, I would never do it. The one time I did it was at Berkeley. I was the mic man at the football games, trying to pump them up. I wasn’t certain everyone knew who I was, I got up there to Say “GO BEARS” and this frat guy in the back row started screaming “truffle shuffle.” then the last 3 rows started chanting it. Next thing you know it caught on and 10,000 students were cheering “truffle . . . shuffle!” The band even started a drumbeat.
Sounds very biblical, like a human sacrifice
Yeah, it was intense. I raised my hand like Moses before the red sea . . . I raised my shirt and did the truffle shuffle. The crowd went crazy. Every game, the chant would start and everyone would do it. I parlayed that into being the president of the student body. It was a supreme sacrifice, but it paid off.
People are probably dying to know, what is the secret for getting better looking with age? The rest of us are falling apart, but I’m sitting in front of a handsome man.
That’s very kind of you. I think the best advice for healthy living is being professional fat kid actor. I know that I’m only 2 deep dish pizzas away from getting back to my Chunk stage. It’s so frightening to me, its keeps me motivated.