Sacha Baron Cohen
October 13, 1971
London, England, GB
Actor, Comedian, Screenwriter
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Both charming and entirely disarming when not in character, British-born satirist Sacha Baron Cohen made an unforgettable impression with his popular series, "Da Ali G Show" (HBO, 2003-06), which showcased him as three distinct personalities: boorish wannabe rapper Ali G, homophobic Eastern European TV personality Borat, and flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion reporter Brüno. These three characters propelled the unknown Baron Cohen into a star, which in turn led to him becoming a major star with the surprise box office hit, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (2006), a mockumentary that caused a great deal on controversy while turning the actor into a sensation. Part of his appeal came from making the media rounds in character, which allowed for pushing the boundaries with unpredictable antics that bordered on performance art. Baron Cohen followed with his second "Ali G" spin-off, "Brüno" (2009), which again became another commercial hit. Press-shy when not working, Baron Cohen led a quiet life with his actress wife Isla Fisher. As he branched out to supporting roles in Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" (2007), Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" (2011) and the adaptation of the musical "Les Misérables" (2012), Baron Cohen continued walking the tightrope with "The Dictator" (2012), where he played an anti-Semitic, misogynistic, capitalist-hating despot of a fictional country. With a blend of social satire and shock comedy that appealed to a wide swath of American audiences, Baron Cohen became one of the most successful and inventive comedians of his time.
The man of many international faces was born in London, England on Oct. 13, 1971, to parents who hailed from Israel and Wales. Baron Cohen was one of three sons in an upper middle class, Orthodox Jewish family and attended private boarding schools. He later spent a year at the Rosh Hanikra Kibbutz in Israel learning more about his roots and faith before going on to study history at Cambridge University and writing his thesis on the role of Jews in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. But beneath those studious sounding accomplishments was a budding performer. Baron Cohen was gregarious, outgoing, and as a teen he formed a break dancing troupe that was hired to play bar mitzvahs. He acted in plays with a Jewish youth group when he was younger and went on to perform at Cambridge University in "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Cyrano de Bergerac."
Following college, Baron Cohen made a deal with himself that he had five years to become a professional entertainer; if at that point he wasn't making any money, he would give up the idea and pursue another career. Not long afterwards he was hired by an obscure satellite television station to host a pop culture show. When the station folded, he landed another hosting job that allowed him to tape video segments of characters he had been developing, usually as a way to con his way into nightclubs without paying. It was during this time that he developed the prototypes for Ali G. and Borat, both of which had some screen time in man-on-the-street segments for the show. In 1998, Baron Cohen brought his two characters to the British sketch comedy series "The 11 O'Clock Show" (Channel 4, 1998-2000), on which they were developed further and officially unleashed on television audiences. The response to Baron Cohen's bold, outrageous style earned him the title of Best Newcomer at the 1999 British Comedy Awards, resulting in a deal to spin-off his own program.
In "Da Ali G Show" (Channel 4, 2000), Baron Cohen starred as the fictitious host of a youth television show whose emulation of "gangsta" style was patently embarrassing. He booked interviews with unsuspecting politicians and celebrities under the guise of representing the "voice of da yoof" and tested their patience with his ill-informed questions. Some subjects, including Labour party member Tony Benn, left mid-interview, believing that the rapper-wannabe's ludicrous assertions were genuine. Riotous, rude, controversial, even racist - or "racialist," as he might say - Ali G became a cultural phenomenon. But Baron Cohen had other creations. Borat, a top media personality from the former Soviet Union nation Kazakhstan, and gay Austrian fashion reporter Brüno, also made minor appearances on "Da Ali G Show," though they would become Baron Cohen's most recognizable characters later in his career. Baron Cohen continued to receive accolades including Personality of the Year from the TV Quick Awards and Best TV Entertainment Production at the 2000 Ethnic Multicultural Awards.
Naturally, Ali G's enormous popularity led to a feature film, "Ali G Indahouse" (2002), in which the clueless rapper is hand-picked by an unscrupulous member of Parliament intent on upsetting the Prime Minister in the next election. Despite his obvious ignorance, Ali G finds himself climbing the political ladder. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in 2002, but failed to make its way to the United States. In fact, except for an appearance in the Madonna video for her single "Music," Baron Cohen remained largely unknown in America. This proved to be a distinct advantage for Baron Cohen when HBO imported "Da Ali G Show" in 2003, leaving an entire, unaware country wide open for his confrontational interviews. Ali G remained the focus of the show and pulled memorable interviews with oblivious political figures, including one with former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, in which he was goaded into admitting that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (2003) was only slightly better than "Lethal Weapon 3" (1992).
Following only one season of "Da Ali G Show" in the U.S., Baron Cohen further established himself with American audiences in a guest spot on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO, 2000), while providing his voice to "Madagascar" (2005), Dreamworks' animated adventure about four escaped zoo animals who find themselves in the actual wilds of Africa. He made an even stronger on-camera impression as an obnoxious French Formula One driver and number one rival of a simple, good ol' boy race car driver (Will Ferrell) in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006). While Baron Cohen stood t -to-t with renowned scene stealer Ferrell in a supporting role, he proved his leading comedian bona fides with the release of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (2006). The relentlessly funny mockumentary followed the crude, offensive and backwards fictitious journalist on quest across the United States to marry Pamela Anderson. During his journey, Borat engaged unsuspecting people in situations designed to help him learn more about America.
Most of the events and people depicted in the film were real, with many of the marks reporting later that they were thoroughly convinced they were talking to a legitimate journalist. Prior to the film's release, Baron Cohen lobbied the public like a politician on the campaign trail, appearing on any and all talk shows - "Today" (NBC, 1952- ), "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (NBC, 1992-2009), "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993- ), "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (Comedy Central, 1996- ) and Howard Stern's Sirius radio show. In a stroke of marketing genius, Baron Cohen was always in character, thus generating interest in audiences to see more of his outrageous and unpredictable character. Not surprisingly, there were objections from the official government of Kazakhstan over the film's obviously absurd portrayal of nation where women are forced to live in cages and pubic hair is their lucrative main export. In actuality, America fared worse in the film, as Borat's behavior allowed other's to let down their guard and expose the nation's often ignored racism, sexism, homophobia and classism. Some who appeared in the film were embarrassed enough to file lawsuits, including two University of South Carolina fraternity brothers, who sued producers for defamation. Their case, as well as numerous others, were dismissed.
Audiences lapped up the clever blend of social satire and slapstick juvenile humor of "Borat" to the tune of more than $250 million at the box office. The creator, writer and star of the controversial, but hilarious film earned a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy. At the ceremony, Baron Cohen gave perhaps the best acceptance speech of the evening, describing how in his journeys across the country he saw "[a]n ugly side of America. A side of America that rarely sees the light of day. I refer, of course, to the anus and testicles of my co-star Ken Davitian." Following his U.S. breakout, Baron Cohen took a break from the grueling demands of inhabiting his extreme characters day-in, day-out, and took on the relatively normal job of portraying a pre-existing character in Tim Burton's holiday release, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007). Proving not only his versatility and sheer command of the screen, but also his vocal chops, Baron Cohen gave an invigorated performance as a former associate who attempts to blackmail the barber-turned-serial murderer (Johnny Depp), only to meet a grisly fate in the barber chair.
In 2008, Baron Cohen reprised his voice role in the sequel "Madagascar Escape 2 Africa. The following year saw the big screen realization of the last of Baron Cohen's famous characters from the Ali G year, "Brüno" (2009). Baron Cohen began surreptitiously promoting the film more than six months prior to its release, staging full-scale pranks, including crashing the Prada runway during Milan fashion week and appearing at a rally in favor of same-sex marriage rights in Los Angeles. At the 2009 MTV Movie Awards, Brüno dropped from the ceiling and landed butt-to-face with the perpetually scowling Eminem, who stormed out with his entourage. Later it was revealed that the rapper had been in on the joke. Once released, the expectedly controversial film "Bruno" revealed itself to be more plot-oriented than "Borat." But it still relied on interactions with unsuspecting interview subjects in support of its story about a flamboyant Austrian fashion reporter who goes to extreme measures to find success in Hollywood, from trying to do serious journalism to becoming unconvincingly heterosexual. The film's sexual themes were enough to keep some movie goers at bay. But another round of outrageous in-character appearances on talk shows brought in a profitable audience and the obligatory frivolous lawsuits.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Baron Cohen moved on to his next outrageous character for "The Dictator" (2012), another mockumentary that courted both laughs and controversy. This time the chameleon-like actor was Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, the childish despot of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya who hates everything from women and Jews to all of Western civilization. Naturally the despised Supreme Leader is a target for assassination, which leads to him being lured to New York for his destruction, only to replace himself with a bumbling body double (Baron Cohen). Of course, the film generated its share of negative reactions, particularly from some Muslim countries that banned it outright. But unlike "Borat" and to some extent "Bruno," "The Dictator" failed to generate as much publicity and received mixed reviews, though the film did prove to be another box office hit. Prior to that film, Baron Cohen branched out into more commercial fare, playing the ever-vigilant Inspector Gustave in Martin Scorsese's children's adventure "Hugo" (2011). He went on to voice King Julien XIII in the animated sequel, "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (2012) and was the thief Thénadier in Tom Hooper's feature adaptation of "Les Misérables" (2012), starring Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.
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