Obituary — Hubert I. Cohen


Hubert Irwin (“Hugh”) Cohen, professor of film, television and media in LSA, and of arts and ideas in the humanities in the Residential College, died March 1 at age 93.

Still teaching until ill health forced him to step down earlier this year, Cohen was one of the longest-serving faculty members in University of Michigan history, having spent his entire career at the institution.

A photo of Hubert Irwin (“Hugh”) Cohen
Hubert Irwin (“Hugh”) Cohen

Born in Detroit in 1930, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Wayne University (now Wayne State) in 1953. Following two years in the Army, he received a master’s degree in English from U-M, then began the long path toward a doctorate.

Named an English department teaching fellow in 1961 and an instructor in engineering English four years later, he received his Ph.D. in 1970 with a dissertation titled “The Grotesque in the Fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

Cohen’s wide-ranging interests included literature, classical music and sports, but his true passion was film, which the university had long considered unworthy of academic consideration. In 1960 he joined student Cinema Guild, going on to become its faculty adviser and to mentor board members such as future “The Big Chill”writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, author-critic Neal Gabler,“Still Alice”co-director Richard Glatzer, film editor Jay Cassidy, and Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Nelson.

Cinema Guild’s adventurous programming sometimes caused controversy, and after a January 1967 screening of Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” Ann Arbor police arrested Cohen and three undergraduates, charging them with “showing or offering to show an obscene motion picture,” a high misdemeanor.

The case caused an uproar on campus and received national attention, but when one of the students agreed to plead guilty to a lesser count, the charges against Cohen and the others were dropped.

The university offered its first film studies class in 1968, and two years later Cohen began teaching “Humanities 236: Introduction to Elements and History of Film.” After the Film/Video Program was established in 1977, his course would become the unit’s gateway offering and gain cross-listing in the Residential College, where Cohen would hold a joint appointment.

His other courses included “The American Western,” “Fathers and Sons,” “Great Books,” “The Bible as Literature,” and “The Hero as Outsider, Outcast, or Outlaw.”

Cohen’s publications included “Ingmar Bergman: The Art of Confession” (Twayne Publishers, 1993) and articles in Modern Fiction, Film Comment, Cinema Journal, Magill’s Cinema Annual, Journal of American Culture, Film and Literature Quarterly, and Film Criticism.  

Cohen’s six decades of teaching inspired generations of U-M students, and sometimes altered their career paths. “Empire of Their Own”author Neal Gabler was one of the first graduate student instructors in Film/Video 236: “He changed the entire course of my life when he invited me to take a break from law school and teach in his course. I did, and never went back to law.”

“Boyhood”producer John Sloss was in a class on Wim Wenders: “Hugh Cohen was an undeniably inspiring teacher. From his unlikely perch in engineering he single-handedly legitimized film studies in the late 1970s university curriculum for me. I’m not sure whether without him I would have pursued a career in the film industry.”

Another devoted student was JABberwocky Literary Agency founder Joshua Bilmes, whose 2022 gift establishing the Hubert I. Cohen Fellowship will fund visits from researchers to use the university’s growing archive of papers of filmmakers like Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Nancy Savoca and John Sayles.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Ellen Rose Cohen. Gifts in his memory can be made to the U-M Libraries Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers Collection.

Written by Frank Uhle and submitted by the Department of Film, Television, and Media


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