WASHINGTON -- "In my head I was a wild man, but in my life I had blocks. I was living within all sorts of constraints," says Rob Cohen, 56, director of the action blockbusters The Fast and the Furious, XXX and the just-opened Stealth -- Top Gun updated by two decades. "Now I'm a 16-year-old boy in a middle-aged body."
At one point, Cohen was best known as the bookish, Harvard-educated 22-year-old who fished the script to The Sting out of a slush pile. At another, it looked as if he made his mark in film history as a "baby mogul" executive at Motown, where he produced one of the top African-American films of the 1970s, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.
Now Cohen is The Man, or at least one of The Men. He's an action expert renowned for plotting camera moves that take you from the inner workings of a souped-up car or super-plane to a hairpin curve or midair flash of lightning -- and for setting off explosions so big they can be tracked from space by satellites.
He made Vin Diesel a two-fisted, multicultural superstar in The Fast and the Furious (2001). When he teamed with Diesel again on XXX (2002), it looked as if Cohen had turned himself into Diesel's twin, and longtime associates wondered whether this transformation was for real.
Equally intense and tranquil as he holds forth on Stealth and the rest of his career in a Georgetown hotel suite, Cohen knows just when to date the emergence of his new, Diesel-fueled identity.
In 1992, he was in pre-production on Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the first movie, he says, that elicited his total commitment.
"I was 42 -- and I had a heart attack. Now I don't know that it had anything to do with the life I was leading. I wasn't a drinker, I wasn't a smoker, I wasn't a coke user. I exercised. I was thin. It was hereditary -- it was that lipoprotein (a) from my father's side of the family that had gotten to me. But it started a change.
"Driving yourself to the hospital in the middle of the night in a rainstorm, stopping at every red light and literally seeing yourself slumped over the wheel as you got an out-of-body thing going -- that's an intense, painful experience, and psychologically cataclysmic. As I healed up -- six weeks later I was back at the helm of Dragon, made it, had a critical and commercial hit -- I took my first steps toward today."
To those who knew him when, the change is as jarring as one of Cohen's you-are-there chase scenes.
"[Twenty years ago], he had thinning hair and a modest beard and an impish expression. He resembled an academic and was probably well-read and smart enough to be one," Stealth screenwriter W.D. "Rick" Richter says of Cohen.
Years later, "I saw a picture of him directing Vin Diesel -- it must have been on XXX -- and my jaw dropped, because the two guys looked identical," Richter says. "They were tattooed, bald, each had an earring, and even the clothes they wore looked similar. At the time, I thought Rob might have just been adopting a look sympathetic to his star. But I don't think so now. At some point he truly became this figure that he's rather comfortable with. He is that look."
Richter met his future Stealth director when Cohen was producing films for moviemaker John Badham, who directed The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), still a career high point for James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. Richter says he held on to his "tweed-jacket" image of Cohen "because I knew Rob was trying to be a director himself -- and the films he started out making didn't seem impossible to be coming from that guy."
Cohen arrived in Hollywood in the early '70s with a degree in anthropology from Harvard. While a student, he'd assisted director Daniel Petrie on a 1969 TV film (Silent Night, Lonely Night) filmed in Amherst, Mass. Bitten by the movie bug, he tried his hand at scriptwriting, then scoured dog cages at a Melrose Avenue animal hospital before landing a job as a reader at Mike Medavoy's International Famous Agency -- which is how he found the script to The Sting. (Coming full circle, Medavoy co-produced Stealth.)
Positions at Fox and Motown followed. He didn't make his directorial debut until 1980 with A Small Circle of Friends, about a love triangle at Harvard in the '60s.
As a producer or executive producer, Cohen garnered an eclectic list of credits, including The Wiz (1978) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987); as a director he was evolving into an old-fashioned all-rounder, doing episodes of TV series as different as Miami Vice and thirtysomething.
But the path to directorial stardom as an action specialist with killer popular instincts would prove to be rocky.
"Rob has been around for a long time," says Richter, "and I knew it used to frustrate him. He could feel his career slipping away while people of equal or even lesser talent were enjoying successes."