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August 16, 1992|BILL STEIGERWALD

PITTSBURGH — James Woods is stuck in fast-forward again.

Wide-eyed, excited, involved and talking faster than most people should try to think, he is darting around in a movie gear-cluttered office inside this city's main Carnegie Library.

Woods is rehearsing a scene from "Citizen Cohn," an HBO bio-movie about Roy Cohn, the surly chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy who became a national household name and baby-faced pariah of America's left wing during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1953-54.

The anti-Communist crusader who also prosecuted the Rosenbergs all the way to the electric chair later became--among many outrageous and controversial things--a law-flouting lawyer, a tax-dodging financial operator and an influential political fixer in New York City. Cohn, a major celebrity of the Manhattan night-life scene for years, died of cancer caused by AIDS in 1986.

The movie begins and ends with the venomous Cohn writhing in agony on his hospital deathbed and it uses a series of flashbacks and pain-induced hallucinations to dramatize his complex life story. David Franzoni and Mitch Booker (a pseudonym) wrote HBO's "Citizen Cohn," which is based on Nicholas von Hoffman's 1988 book of the same title. The movie premieres this week, on the heels of " Woods' new film "Diggstown," which opened Friday.

The scene Woods is rehearsing with such intense interest will be a very minor one for him: Sen. McCarthy (Joe Don Baker) and his young assistant Robert F. Kennedy (David Marshall Grant) will storm into Cohn's inner office, where Cohn is on the phone with gossip columnist Walter Winchell (Joseph Bologna).

Yet as director Frank Pierson--trailed by several technical people--is walking Baker through the scene at half speed, Woods is buzzing around them, juking this way and that, pointing, brainstorming out loud.

How about if Cohn tugs on his tie, Woods asks, adding that he'll be able to use it again in a later scene? And, yes, Woods assures someone, Cohn's 1953 telephone would have had a hold button on it. And, Woods suggests, what if Cohn says, "Walter, I'll get back to you," just as McCarthy blows into his office?

Woods thus manages to squeeze a quick line of dialogue for himself into the only scene in which he would have had none. He works the timing out with Baker, then gets the OK from the statesmanlike Pierson, a hands-off director-screenwriter whose many credits include a 1975 Academy Award for writing "Dog Day Afternoon."

Of course, Woods wasn't always so chipper during "Citizen Cohn's" 27-day shoot this spring. One day he exploded twice in anger on the set after repeated problems with a prop. An extra who witnessed the blowups described them as being like a tornado touching down in an empty field--scary but harmless and quickly gone and forgotten.

Woods has been known to have fierce creative battles with some directors. He and Oliver Stone had protracted screaming matches on "Salvador." Stone later told GQ that Woods is a "lunatic" but well worth the price, and the two are friends and mutual admirers today.

The easygoing Pierson is not put off by Woods' barrage of interventions. He welcomes them and likes 85% of them, he says, as the office scene is being readied for filming. "You just foul off the ones you don't like into the left-field seats."

Until the script doctors made Cohn's beknighted character more sympathetic, or at least tried to make his pathologies more understandable, the original screenplay "was a kind of political diatribe, really just a vicious attack on Roy Cohn," says Pierson.

Wanting to attack Cohn is understandable, considering his hate-filled career. A lifetime friend and hero of the anti-Communist Republican right wing, Cohn was both a blatantly promiscuous homosexual and a homophobe. He made speeches to conservative groups attacking gay rights and, even as he was dying of AIDS, baldly lied on "60 Minutes" when directly asked if he was a homosexual.

Despite this and much else, Cohn's bipartisan network of powerful pals was awesome, from presidents and gossip columnists to mobsters and cardinals. He was chummy with J. Edgar Hoover and Norman Mailer and dated Barbara Walters.

When Cohn was disbarred in New York shortly before his death, the roster of those who testifed to his honesty and good character--despite a career of evidence to the contrary--included William F. Buckley, William Safire, Geraldine Ferraro, Alan Dershowitz, George Steinbrenner, Donald Trump, plus Walters and bishops, FBI agents and ex-Reagan White House aides.

The role of Cohn seems perfectly suited to the talents of the cinematically volatile Woods. Producer Doro Bachrach doubts that "Citizen Cohn" would ever have been made without his participation. Bachrach, who most recently produced "Love Hurts" with Jeff Daniels, pursued Woods until she landed him, and she's pleased with her catch in every way.

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