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Sacha Baron Cohen

(1971 - )

Sacha Noam Baron Cohen is an English actor, comedian, and writer best known for his comic personas Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, and Brüno.

Sacha Baron Cohen was born October 13, 1971, in England to Daniella (née Weiser), born in Israel, and Gerald Baron Cohen, originally from Whales. He was the youngest of three sons in an Orthodox Jewish family. Before university, he spent a year at Kibbutz Rosh HaNikra and Kibbutz Beit HaEmek with Habonim Dror. He went on to study history at Cambridge University and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights movement. At the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, Baron Cohen acted in plays such as Fiddler on the Roof (in which he played Tevye) and Cyrano de Bergerac. While at Cambridge, he performed in Habonim Dror Jewish theatre performances.

After leaving university, Baron Cohen worked for a time as a fashion model, appearing in many fashion magazines. In the early 1990s, he hosted a weekly program on Windsor TV until he was fired for broadcasting a lewd presentation for Valentine’s Day. From 1995-1996, Baron Cohen had another television hosting job and later made his first feature film appearance in the British comedy The Jolly Boys’ Last Stand.

Baron Cohen appeared during 2-minute sketches as his fashion reporter Brüno on The Paramount Comedy Channel in 1998. He shot to fame when his comic character Ali G started appearing on the British television show The Eleven O’Clock Show on Channel 4, which first aired on September 8, 1998.

In 2000, Da Ali G Show began airing and won the BAFTA for Best Comedy the following year. The show featured Ali G’s interviews with famous people (often politicians) and 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. In 2002, Ali G was the central character in the feature film Ali G Indahouse and his television show was exported to the United States in 2003 (with new episodes set in America) for HBO.

Baron Cohen’s feature film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan debuted in 2006. The film is about Borat’s journey across the United States in an ice cream van, in which the main character is obsessed with the idea of marrying Pamela Anderson. The film is a mockumentary that includes interviews with various American citizens that poke fun at American culture, as well as sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, jingoism, and Baywatch. Baron Cohen also frequently speaks in Hebrew while playing the anti-Semitic Kazakh reporter character. The movie debuted at the #1 spot in the U.S., taking in an estimated $26.4 million in just 837 theatres averaging $31,600 per theatre, the fourth-highest per-theatre average of all time.

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. After announcing he was retiring the character in 2007, Baron Cohen brought him back for a 2018 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live and in the 2020 sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, for which he won another Golden Globe Award.

Another alter ego Baron Cohen performed as was Brüno, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion show presenter. After an intense bidding war, Universal Pictures paid a reported $42.5 million for the rights to Brüno, the movie, which debuted in 2009.

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. The main target of the film’s satire was Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was still alive when the film was written.

Baron Cohen portrays various characters in the television series Who Is America? One, Erran Morad, is an Israeli anti-terrorism expert. Before Who Is America? aired on Showtime, some conservative public figures complained that Baron Cohen had deceived them while in character. In one segment, Morad explains to Philip Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a proposal to arm children ages 3 to 16 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. Baron Cohen decided not to continue the series because the publicity surrounding the show and his interviews made it harder for him to dupe guests.

In Baron Cohen’s The Brothers Grimsby, 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.

He received more positive reviews in 2020 for his role as political activist Abbie Hoffman in the drama The Trial of the Chicago 7.

For his comedic work, Sacha Baron Cohen has received several Emmy nominations, an Oscar nomination, a BAFTA award, and a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

Baron Cohen attracted controversy for some of his portrayals that were deliberately anti-Semitic. In Borat, Baron Cohen said he wanted to provide a ”dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry.” He added, “Borat essentially works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice.” In an NPR interview, 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.”[18] 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.”

In 2019, Baron Cohen was awarded the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership Award for opposing bigotry and prejudice. In accepting the award, Baron Cohen gave an impassioned speech directing criticism at internet companies, singling out Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter as part of “the biggest propaganda machine in history” and claiming that their rules on hate speech meant “they would have let Hitler buy ads.”

Baron Cohen has said, “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.”

Baron Cohen was married in 2010 to Australian actress Isla Fisher, who converted to Judaism in early 2007. They have two daughters and a son.

Sources: The Baltimore Jewish Times.
Sacha Baron Cohen, Wikipedia.

Photos: Joella Marano, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Borat - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5. Author: Michael Bulcik / SKS Soft GmbH Düsseldorf.