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Sacha Baron Cohen
Birth name: Sacha Noam Baron Cohen
Born/Date of Birth: 13 October 1971
Place of Birth: Hammersmith, London, England
Height: 1.91 m
Medium: Actor, comedian, writer, director, film producer
Education: Christ's College, Cambridge
Genres: Character comedy, black comedy, cringe comedy, physical comedy, satire
Spouse: Isla Fisher (m. 2010)
Relative(s): Erran Baron Cohen (brother)
Ash Baron-Cohen (cousin)
Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin)
Dan Baron Cohen (cousin)
Notable works and roles: Ali G
Admiral General Aladeen
Sacha Noam Baron Cohen (born 13 October 1971) is an English actor, comedian, writer, director and film producer. He is known for his creation and portrayal of several fictional satirical characters, including Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, Brüno Gehard and Admiral General Aladeen. Like his idol Peter Sellers, Baron Cohen adopts a variety of accents and guises for his characters. He interacts with unsuspecting subjects, who do not realise they have been set up for self-revealing ridicule. On these interactions, The Observer states, "his career has been built on winding people up, while keeping a deadpan face".
Baron Cohen's other work includes voicing King Julien XIII in the Madagascar film series (2005–2012) and appearing in films such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Hugo (2011), and Les Misérables (2012). He made a cameo as a BBC News Anchor in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013). In 2016, Baron Cohen appeared in the comedy film Grimsby and co-starred in the fantasy sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass. Two years later, he created and starred in Who Is America? (2018) for Showtime, his first television project since Da Ali G Show, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy. The following year, Baron Cohen portrayed Eli Cohen in the limited series The Spy for OCS and Netflix, for which he received a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Miniseries or Television Film.
Baron Cohen was named Best Newcomer at the 1999 British Comedy Awards for The 11 O'Clock Show, and since then, he has received two BAFTA Awards for Da Ali G Show, several Emmy nominations, a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his work in the feature film Borat. After the release of Borat, Baron Cohen said he would retire Borat and Ali G because the public had become too familiar with the characters. After the release of Brüno, he said he would retire that character. At the 2012 British Comedy Awards, he received the Outstanding Achievement Award, accepting the award while reprising his Ali G character. In 2013, he received the BAFTA Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award for Excellence in Comedy.
In 2018, The Times named Baron Cohen among the 30 best living comedians, and in 2019 a panel on the television channel Gold included him in a list of the greatest ever British comedians.
Sacha Noam Baron Cohen was born on 13 October 1971 in Hammersmith to Jewish parents. His mother, photographer Daniella Naomi (née Weiser), was born in Israel. His father, Gerald Baron Cohen (1932–2016), a clothing store owner, was born in London and raised in Wales. Baron Cohen was raised Jewish and is fluent in Hebrew.
Baron Cohen's maternal family were German Jewish emigrants to Israel. His paternal family were also Ashkenazi Jews, who moved to Pontypridd and London in the United Kingdom. His paternal grandfather, Morris Cohen, added "Baron" to his surname. His maternal grandmother, who lived in Haifa, Israel, trained as a ballet dancer in Germany. He has two older brothers: Erran and Amnon. Erran is a composer and has worked on several of Sacha's films. Baron Cohen's cousin Simon is an autism researcher.
Baron Cohen was educated at The Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, an independent school in Elstree, Hertfordshire, read History at Christ's College, Cambridge and graduated in 1993 with upper-second-class honours. As an undergraduate, Baron Cohen wrote his thesis on the American civil rights movement. While a member of the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, Baron Cohen performed in plays such as Fiddler on the Roof and Cyrano de Bergerac, as well as in Habonim Dror Jewish theatre.
—Baron Cohen on his greatest influence, fellow British comedian Peter Sellers.
Growing up, Baron Cohen was a fan of Monty Python and Peter Cook, but his greatest comedic influence was Peter Sellers. Known for portraying a wide range of comic characters using different accents and guises, Sellers was referred to by Baron Cohen as "the most seminal force in shaping [his] early ideas on comedy". After leaving university, Baron Cohen worked for a time as a fashion model. By the early 1990s, he was hosting a weekly programme on Windsor cable television's local broadcasts with Carol Kirkwood, who later became a BBC weather forecaster. In 1995, Channel 4 was planning a replacement for its series The Word, and disseminated an open call for new television presenters. Baron Cohen sent in a tape of himself in the character of Kristo, an Albanian fictional television reporter (who developed into the Kazakh Borat Sagdiyev), which caught the attention of a producer. Baron Cohen hosted Pump TV from 1995 to 1996.
In 1996, Baron Cohen began presenting the youth chat programme F2F for Granada Talk TV and had a small role in an advert for McCain Microchips, as a chef in a commercial entitled "Ping Pong". He took clown training in Paris, at the École Philippe Gaulier, studying under master-clown Philippe Gaulier. Of his former pupil, Gaulier says: "He was a good clown, full of spirit". Baron Cohen made his first feature film appearance in the British comedy The Jolly Boys' Last Stand (2000). Also in 2000, he played the part of Super Greg for a series of TV advertisements for Lee Jeans; the advertisements never aired, but the website for Super Greg created an internet sensation.
Baron Cohen appeared during two-minute sketches as his fashion reporter Brüno on the Paramount Comedy Channel during 1998. He shot to fame with his comic character Ali G, a fictional stereotype of a British suburban male "chav" who imitates urban black British hip hop culture and British Jamaican culture, as well as speaking in rude boy-style English with borrowed expressions from Jamaican Patois. Hailing from Staines (a suburban town in Surrey, to the west of London), Ali G started appearing on the British television show The 11 O'Clock Show on Channel 4, which first aired on 8 September 1998. A year after the première of the show, GQ named Baron Cohen comedian of the year. He won Best Newcomer at the 1999 British Comedy Awards, and at the British Academy Television Awards he was nominated for Best British Entertainment Performance.
Da Ali G Show began in 2000, and won the BAFTA for Best Comedy in the following year. Also in 2000, Baron Cohen as Ali G appeared as the limousine driver in Madonna's 2000 video "Music", directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who was also responsible for directing the titles for Da Ali G Show. Baron Cohen is a supporter of the UK charity telethon Comic Relief, which is broadcast on the BBC, and as Ali G interviewed David Beckham and wife Victoria in 2001.
In a 2001 Channel 4 poll Ali G was ranked eighth on their list of the 100 Greatest TV Characters. In 2002, Ali G was the central character in the feature film Ali G Indahouse, in which he is elected to the British Parliament and foils a plot to bulldoze a community centre in his home town, Staines. His television show was exported to the United States in 2003, with new episodes set there, for HBO.
At the 2012 British Comedy Awards, 13 years after winning Best Newcomer at the 1999 Comedy Awards, Baron Cohen accepted the Outstanding Achievement Award from Sir Ben Kingsley in the guise of Ali G, and stated: "I is grown up now. I ain't living in my nan's house anymore. I is living in her garage".
Ali G's interviews with celebrities (often politicians) gained notoriety partly because the subjects were not privy to the joke that Ali G, rather than being a real interviewer, was a comic character played by Baron Cohen. According to Rolling Stone magazine, Baron Cohen would always enter the interview area in character as Ali G, carrying equipment and appearing to be an inconspicuous crew member. He would arrive with a suited man, whom the interviewee naturally thought was the interviewer. Baron Cohen, as Ali G, would sit down to begin conducting the interview by asking the interviewee some preliminary questions. The interviewee, however, would remain under the impression that the smartly-dressed director would be conducting the interview until short notice prior to cameras rolling: this would grant an advantage of surprise, whereby the interviewee would be less likely to opt out of the Ali interview prior to its start.
The Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev was first developed for short skits on F2F on Granada Television in the UK that Baron Cohen presented in 1996–1997, with the character at this time being known as Alexi Krickler. The character remained dormant while Baron Cohen concentrated on his Ali G persona, but with the subsequent success of Ali G Baron Cohen revisited his Borat character. Borat's sense of humour derives from his mocking of society through outrageous sociocultural viewpoints, his deadpan violation of social taboos and use of vulgar language and behaviour.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, a feature film with Borat Sagdiyev at the centre, was screened at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and released in the United Kingdom on 2 November 2006, in the United States on 3 November 2006 and Australia 23 November 2006. The film follows Sagdiyev as he and his colleague Azamat Bagatov travel the US to produce a documentary about life in the country, all the while Sagdiyev attempts to enter into marriage with celebrity Pamela Anderson. The film is a mockumentary which includes interviews with various Americans that poke fun at American culture, as well as sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and jingoism. It debuted at the No. 1 spot in the US, taking in an estimated $26.4 million in just 837 theatres averaging $31,600 per theatre.
Baron Cohen won the 2007 Golden Globe in the "Best Actor – Musical or Comedy" category, his sixth such award. Although Borat was up for "Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy", the film lost to Dreamgirls. On 23 January 2007, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He shared his nomination with the film's co-writers, Ant Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, and Todd Phillips.
Aside from the comic elements of his characters, Baron Cohen's performances are interpreted by some as reflecting uncomfortable truths about his audience. He juxtaposes his own Jewish heritage with the anti-Semitism of his character Borat.
In 2007, Baron Cohen published a travel guide as Borat, with dual titles: Borat: Touristic Guidings To Minor Nation of U.S. and A. and Borat: Touristic Guidings To Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. On 21 December 2007, Baron Cohen announced he was retiring the character of Borat.
Another alter ego Sacha Baron Cohen performed as is 'Brüno', a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion show presenter who often lures his unwitting subjects into making provocative statements and engaging in embarrassing behaviour, as well as leading them to contradict themselves, often in the same interview. Brüno asks the subjects to answer "yes or no" questions with either "Vassup" (what's up) or "Ich don't think so" (No); these are occasionally substituted with "Ach, ja!" (Ah yes!) or "Nicht, nicht" ("Nicht" means "not" in German). In one segment on Da Ali G Show, he encouraged his guest to answer questions with either "Keep them in the ghetto" or "Train to Auschwitz".
Brüno's main comedic satire pertains to the vacuity and inanity of the fashion and clubbing world. In May 2009, at the MTV Movie Awards, Baron Cohen appeared as Brüno wearing a white angel costume, a white jockstrap, white go-go boots, and white wings; and did an aerial stunt where he dropped from a height (using wires) onto Eminem. Baron Cohen landed with his face on Eminem's crotch, with his crotch in Eminem's face, prompting Eminem to exit the venue with fellow rappers D12. Eminem later admitted to staging the stunt with Baron Cohen. After an intense bidding war that included such Hollywood powerhouses as DreamWorks, Sony, and 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures won and paid a reported $42.5 million for the film rights. A number of shill companies and websites were created in order to draw potential interviewees into interviews by creating an illusion of legitimacy. The film was released in July 2009.
Admiral General Aladeen
Baron Cohen's 2012 film, The Dictator, was described by its press as "the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed". Baron Cohen played Admiral General Aladeen, a dictator from a fictional country called the Republic of Wadiya. Borat and Brüno film director Larry Charles directed the film. The main target of the film's satire was Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was still alive when the film was written. The producers of the film were concerned it would anger Gaddafi, possibly even resulting in a terrorist attack, so they released deliberate misinformation saying that the film was loosely based on a romance novel written by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
On 26 February 2012, Baron Cohen was allegedly banned from attending the 84th Academy Awards in his role as Admiral General Aladeen but the rumour was denied by the Academy, saying "we haven't banned him, he is lying" but made it clear that "Cohen is not welcome to use the red carpet as a platform for a promotional stunt". Baron Cohen eventually appeared at the awards' red carpet with a pair of uniformed female bodyguards, holding an urn which he claimed was filled with the ashes of Kim Jong-il. The "ashes", which Baron Cohen admitted to Howard Stern on the Tuesday, 8 May 2012 episode of The Howard Stern Show were flour, were "accidentally" spilt onto Ryan Seacrest.
Baron Cohen portrays various characters in Who Is America?, the most prominent and controversial being Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert. The character is referred to as a colonel (and later captain, general, major, sergeant, brigadier, sergeant corporal and lieutenant) in the Israeli military and a former agent of Mossad (or "not in the Mossad," as he often interjects). Before Who Is America? aired on Showtime, some conservative public figures made statements saying that Baron Cohen had deceived them while in character. Hours before the premiere, Showtime uploaded the "Kinderguardians" segment on their YouTube channel, in which Morad explains to Philip Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, of the proposal of a new program where children ages 3 to 16 are armed with guns. He also interviews other conservatives, such as Dana Rohrabacher, Joe Wilson, and Joe Walsh, who are openly supportive. Only Matt Gaetz expresses skepticism of Morad's proposal and declines to be in his video.
In the second episode, Morad teaches Jason Spencer, a Republican state representative from Georgia, how to detect and repel terrorists by taking pictures up a woman's burqa with a selfie stick, walking backwards while baring his buttocks, and yelling racial epithets. After the airing of the episode, Spencer initially refused to step down, stating that he was exploited by the producers. He eventually did step down on 31 July 2018, leaving the seat vacant. In May 2018, Spencer lost his primary to a political novice, Steven Sainz, but was expected to serve the rest of his term until November.
Controversies and criticism
In an interview with former Tory MP politician Neil Hamilton in 2000, Ali G offered Hamilton what was allegedly cannabis, which Hamilton accepted and smoked, creating some minor controversy in the British media.
At the 2006 MTV Movie Awards, Borat introduced Gnarls Barkley's performance of "Crazy", where he made a comment about Jessica Simpson, saying that he liked her mouth and that he could see it clearly through her denim pants.
At the 2006 UK premiere of Borat, he arrived in Leicester Square in a cart pulled by a mule and a number of "Kazakh women," announcing: "Good evening, gentleman and prostitutes. After this, I stay in a hotel in Kings Cross. We will all drink, wrestle with no clothes on and shoot dogs from the window".
Baron Cohen has been criticised for the racist or prejudiced comments his characters have made (see Da Ali G Show). HBO spokesman Quentin Schaffer has replied to criticism concerning Baron Cohen's characters, "Through his alter-egos, he delivers an obvious satire that exposes people's ignorance and prejudice in much the same way All in the Family did years ago". Regarding his portrayal as the anti-Semitic Borat, Baron Cohen says the segments are a "dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry", rather than a display of racism by Baron Cohen himself. "Borat essentially works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice", Baron Cohen explains. Addressing the same topic in an NPR interview with Robert Siegel, Baron Cohen said, "I think that's quite an interesting thing with Borat, which is people really let down their guard with him because they're in a room with somebody who seems to have these outrageous opinions. They sometimes feel much more relaxed about letting their own outrageous, politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions come out".
Baron Cohen, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, says he also wishes in particular to expose the role of indifference in that genocide. "When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, 'The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.' I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic". Regarding the enthusiastic response to his song, "In My Country There Is Problem" (also known as "Throw the Jew Down the Well"), he says, "Did it reveal that they were anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But maybe it just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism".
Baron Cohen walked onto the runway during the Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada fashion show in Milan on 26 September 2008. In the character of one of his alter-egos Brüno, he was wearing a costume made of velcro. He appeared on the stage with a blanket and items of clothing stuck to his velcro suit. Lights were turned off while security intervened and escorted him off the stage, and the fashion show resumed normally shortly thereafter. Baron Cohen and his team allegedly accessed the fashion show using fake IDs.
The government of Kazakhstan threatened Baron Cohen with legal action following the 2005 MTV Europe Music Awards ceremony in Lisbon, and the authority in charge of the country's country-code top-level domain name removed the website that he had created for his character Borat (previously: http://www.borat.kz) for alleged violation of the law—specifically, registering for the domain under a false name. The New York Times, among others, has reported that Baron Cohen (in character as Borat) replied: "I'd like to state that I have no connection with Mr. Cohen and fully support my government decision to sue this Jew". He was, however, defended by Dariga Nazarbayeva, a politician and the daughter of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stated, "We should not be afraid of humour and we shouldn't try to control everything..." The deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan later invited Baron Cohen to visit the country, stating that he could learn that "women drive cars, wine is made of grapes, and Jews are free to go to synagogues". After the success of the Borat film, the Kazakh government, including the president, altered their stance on Baron Cohen's parody, tacitly recognising the invaluable press coverage the controversy created for their country.
Baron Cohen encountered another problem around his Borat character. Two of the three University of South Carolina students who appear in Borat sued the filmmakers, alleging that they were duped into signing release forms while drunk, and that false promises were made that the footage was for a documentary that would never be screened in the US. On 11 December 2006, a Los Angeles judge denied the pair a restraining order to remove them from the film. The lawsuit was dismissed in February 2007.
On 22 May 2009, a charity worker at a seniors' bingo game sued Baron Cohen, claiming an incident shot for Brüno at a charity bingo tournament left her disabled. However, the worker later retracted her statement, saying the "actor never struck her", but that he "beat her down emotionally to the point she's now confined to a wheelchair". The scene did not make the final cut for the film. The case was dismissed in late November 2009 on Anti-SLAPP grounds, with all lawyer's fees to be paid by the charity worker. The dismissal was appealed and upheld on 12 September 2011.
On 30 April 2010, Palestinian Christian grocer Ayman Abu Aita, of the West Bank and former member of Fatah, filed a lawsuit against Baron Cohen, alleging that he had been defamed by false accusations that he was a terrorist in the movie Bruno. Aita included David Letterman in the suit based on comments made during a 7 July 2009 appearance by Baron Cohen on the Late Show with David Letterman. Unlike the other lawsuits, Aita did not sign a release form, and his case centered around whether Baron Cohen's portrayal of Aita was false, not whether he was defrauded. In September 2012, the defamation claim was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and the court case was dismissed.
In 2018, former Senate candidate Roy Moore (R) of Alabama sued Baron Cohen for $95 million relating to a mock interview in Who is America? and allegations of paedophilia.
Baron Cohen guest-starred in the fifth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Dustin Hoffman, as a guide to Heaven. He also provided the voice of the ring-tailed lemur king, King Julien, in DreamWorks Animation's film series, Madagascar, and appeared as Will Ferrell's arch rival, the French Formula One speed demon Jean Girard, in the hit Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006). He also appeared alongside Johnny Depp in the film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ,(2007), as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, co-starred in Martin Scorsese's adventure film Hugo (2011), and portrayed Thénardier in the 2012 film version of the musical Les Misérables. He appeared as a BBC News Anchor in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013).
For much of the early part of his career, Baron Cohen tended to avoid doing interviews out of character. However, in 2004, he did the talk show circuit appearing as himself on Late Show with David Letterman, The Opie and Anthony Show, The Howard Stern Show, and others in order to promote the forthcoming season of his show on HBO. He was also interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered and did an interview with Rolling Stone, published in November 2006, that the magazine labelled as "his only interview as himself". He also appeared in an interview out of character with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air on 4 January 2007.
Baron Cohen has twice presented the MTV Europe Music Awards, first as Ali G on 8 November 2001, in Frankfurt, Germany, and then as Borat on 3 November 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal. Baron Cohen appeared out of character to accept an award at the British Comedy Awards in December 2006. He said at the time that Borat could not make it to the awards as "he's guest of honour at the Holocaust denial conference in Tehran", referring to the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust.
Borat director Larry Charles explains that Baron Cohen generally appears in character partly to "protect his weakness", by focusing public interest on his characters rather than himself. His other reason, Newsweek claims, is that Baron Cohen is fiercely private: "...according to the UK press, his publicists denied that he attended a party for the London premiere of Borat and that a party even occurred".
In September 2010, representatives for Cohen confirmed that he was set to play Freddie Mercury in the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic about the rock singer. He dropped out of the project in July 2013, citing "creative differences" between him and the surviving members of Queen. Queen guitarist Brian May later said that even though the band and Baron Cohen were on good terms, they felt that Baron Cohen's presence would be "distracting". The role was later played by Rami Malek.
Baron Cohen shot a spread with supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio for Marie Claire magazine to promote the film Brüno.
Sports Illustrated's 6 November 2006 issue contains a column called "Skater vs. Instigator", which illustrates various amusing "parallels" between Baron Cohen and figure skater Sasha Cohen, ranging from their mutually held personal significance of the number 4, to their shared romantic interests in redheads.
Baron Cohen was featured in the Time 100 list for 2007.
In 2010, Baron Cohen guest-starred in The Simpsons episode, "The Greatest Story Ever D'ohed", as Jakob, a quick-tempered Israeli tour guide.
In Baron Cohen's Grimsby (2016; The Brothers Grimsby in the US), he plays the football hooligan brother of a British MI6 spy. The film received mixed reviews from critics and was a failure at the box office.
On 3 November 2016, it was announced that Baron Cohen will headline the American remake of the Danish comedy Klown.
In October 2018, it was announced that Baron Cohen would portray political activist/anarchist Abbie Hoffman in the drama film The Trial of the Chicago 7, with Aaron Sorkin set to write and direct.
In 2019, Baron Cohen was awarded an International Leadership Award by the Anti-Defamation League for leadership in fighting bigotry and prejudice. In accepting the award, Baron Cohen directed criticism at internet companies, singling out Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter as part of "the biggest propaganda machine in history".
Israel and Judaism
Baron Cohen first acted in theatrical productions featuring the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror.
He spent a year in Israel volunteering at Kibbutzim Rosh HaNikra and Beit HaEmek as part of the Shnat Habonim Dror, as well as taking part in the programme Machon L'Madrichei Chutz La'Aretz for Jewish youth movement leaders.
According to Baron Cohen, "I wouldn't say I am a religious Jew. I am proud of my Jewish identity and there are certain things I do and customs I keep". He tries to keep kosher and attends synagogue about twice a year.
Marriage and family
Baron Cohen first met actress Isla Fisher in 2002, at a party in Sydney, Australia. The couple became engaged in 2004. Subsequent to Fisher's conversion to Judaism, the two married on 15 March 2010 in Paris, France in a Jewish ceremony. Baron Cohen and Fisher have three children.
On 28 December 2015, Baron Cohen and his wife Isla Fisher donated £335,000 ($500,000) to Save the Children as part of a programme to vaccinate children in northern Syria against measles, and the same amount to the International Rescue Committee also aimed at helping Syrian refugees.
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