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'Gangster Squad' Is Here! Five Facts About Mickey Cohen

Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen
Photo by courtesy of Warner Bros.

Argo was so relentlessly entertaining I found myself thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe real life was this gripping and expertly paced. I guess truth really is stranger than fiction.” So it was disappointing to find out that much of it was bullshit: the minimal role of the Canadians, the Alan Arkin character, the entire suspense-filled third act. 


The new movie Gangster Squad is also supposed to be based on a true story — the LAPD’s attempts to take down notorious mob kingpin Mickey Cohen. Since Gangster Squad features Sean Penn playing a guy who more closely resembled a Roger Rabbit–era Bob Hoskins, I suspect this movie will change a few things around, too. Here are some fun facts about Mickey Cohen that probably haven’t made the final cut:

1. He was comically hard to kill


Spoiler alert: Ryan Gosling doesn’t kill Sean Penn. A badass crew of renegade cops couldn’t whack Cohen, and neither could rival mobster Jack Dragna. After his men opened fire on Cohen’s Cadillac in Brentwood, he just ducked his head and steered the car down Wilshire with one hand (even though Michael Bay movies hadn’t been invented yet). Dynamite under Cohen’s house only succeeded in ruining his collection of fine suits. And he dodged a sharpshooter’s bullet because he bent down to look at a scratch on his car. 

2. He was friends with Redd Foxx. 

The night before Cohen went to prison for the first time, the raunchy comic and future Sanford and Son star invited him over for some home-cooked gumbo. Wouldn’t you like to see that scene?


3. He suffered from crippling germaphobia.

A remorseless killer, Cohen was also responsible for rubbing out billions of germs. According to Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster, Cohen constantly washed his hands, wouldn’t touch any surface without a tissue, and made his bookkeeper supply him with crisp, clean, new money every day. Oh, and there was this daily routine: “After spending an hour showering, clean towels were spread to insulate the floor before his bare feet touched it. ‘Air-drying’ his body, a process that took at least fifteen minutes, the first article of clothing he donned was a fedora. Next he covered himself with such copious amounts of talcum powder that he resembled a snowman wearing a hat. Running from wall to wall to remove excess talcum powder, he then stepped into his clothing. His shoes were the last items he touched. After handling them, he found it necessary to wash again. The ritualistic dressing custom often took three hours to complete.” 

 4. He beat up Nazis.

It’s not exactly Inglourious Basterds, but the proudly Jewish (if nonobservant) Cohen did his small part against the Third Reich. According to Cohen biographer Brad Lewis, during a late ’30s stint in an Arizona jail, Cohen recognized a fellow prisoner as American Nazi sympathizer Robert Noble, head of the virulently pro-Hitler Friends of Progress. After convincing the guards to put Noble (and an accomplice) in his cell, Cohen proceeded to beat the living Heil out of them.

5. He tried to rescue Patty Hearst.

After his 1972 release from prison, the now-frail Cohen kept pretty much to himself. But when the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, he enjoyed a bit of a comeback. The Hearsts figured Cohen’s underworld connections could help him get to SLA leader Donald DeFreeze. While Cohen made some headway, his gangster’s conscience (Patty might be sent to prison if found) eventually made him drop the case — but not before he scored an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show, along with country star Lynn Anderson. 

To be fair, this whole mid-70s episode is out of Gangster Squad’s purview, but it could make an interesting movie in its own right. Rachel McAdams for Patty Hearst?

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