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You wanna be nice, or you wanna be effective? You wanna make the law, or subject to it? CHOOSE!
~ Roy Cohn tempting Joe to abandon his moral compass.

Roy Cohn is a major villain in Tony Kushner's play Angels In America and the 2003 HBO TV adaptation. A lawyer infamous for his part in the McCarthy trials, the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, and the prosecution of homosexuals, Roy prides himself on having served as an adviser for both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and still maintains significant influence throughout the upper echelons of the American government. He is also extremely corrupt, having used blackmail, bribery, coercion and a variety of other illegal methods to unfairly sway courts and officials into abiding by his decisions.

Also, despite his well-publicized homophobia, he is actually homosexual himself - and at the beginning of the play is revealed to be suffering from AIDS. As such, he is determined to maintain his influence and his status - especially at the expense of others - even as he slowly succumbs to the disease.

In the miniseries, he was portrayed by Al Pacino, who also portrayed Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, John Milton in The Devil's Advocate, Richard III in Looking For RichardShylock in The Merchant of Venice, Big Boy in Dick Tracy, David Fisk in Righteous Kill, Willy Bank in Ocean's Thirteen, Tony Montana in Scarface, and Wilhelm Zuchs in Hunters.

History

Act I: Millennium Approaches

The play begins in New York, 1985, during the height of the AIDS crisis. Introduced very early in the story, Roy Cohn is first encountered talking with multiple clients on the phone while also serving as a host to a visitor: Joe Pitt, an up-and-coming clerk at the judge's office, to whom Roy has been mentoring for greater things. During this first scene, the notorious lawyer barely pays attention to his guest, bombarding his callers with expletives and seemingly contradictory advice - up until Joe, a devout Mormon, takes issue with Roy's frequent blasphemies and asks him to cut down on saying "Jesus Christ."

Amused at the clerk's sudden outspokenness, Roy turns his attention to Joe and asks him if he would like a more prestigious position in Washington D.C., offering to use his influence to find him a place in the Justice Department. Though fascinated by the idea, Joe asks for time to discuss the idea with his wife, Harper, who is currently addicted to valium, deeply agoraphobic and extremely depressed by Joe's absences from their home.

Roy is next seen at the office of his personal physician, being formally diagnosed with AIDS: his doctor Henry has found Kaposi's sarcoma lesions on his arms, along with swollen glands and a number of fungal problems, all signs that his body is losing its ability to defend against normally-harmless ailments. However, not only does Roy take the news in stride, he seems offended that his doctor would even suggest that he has AIDS, and openly threatens Henry with the destruction of his medical practice, career and reputation if he even implies that Roy is homosexual.

The long-suffering doctor points out that Roy has had sex with a large number of male prostitutes over the last thirty years, and has actually treated him for both syphilis and venereal warts (in his rectum) for this very reason... only for his patient to resort to mental gymnastics: claiming that his clout and influence make him different from homosexuals who "can't get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council", Roy brags at length about his influence at the White house, and claims that this political sway actually makes him "a heterosexual who fucks around with guys." For good measure, he has Henry officially list his diagnosis as "liver cancer," claiming that he cannot be suffering from AIDS as he is not homosexual. Nonetheless, the doctor warns him that his condition can only be treated with the experimental drug AZT, which is extremely difficult for most sufferers to obtain, and recommends that he use every last connection at the White House to get past the waiting list.

While the other characters of the play struggle to deal with AIDS and sexuality in their own way, Roy continues grooming Joe for a place in Washington: at a bar, he uses Joe's growing anxieties over Harper's deteriorating mental state to influence him further, painting himself as a fatherly figure who only wants the best for the clerk and his wife. He encourages Joe to think not of his obligations to Harper, but to himself, suggesting that he can either divorce her or take her Washington against her will. For good measure, he reveals his diagnosis of "liver cancer" as they leave, using the diagnosis to play on Joe's sympathies.

At a restaurant, Roy and a publicity agent for the Justice Department discuss their plans for Washington with Joe, intending to stack the Supreme Court with fanatically Republican judges, ensuring that any liberal bills in favor of affirmative action or anti-discrimination can be blocked. A staunch Republican himself, Joe takes this in stride up until the two men start pushing him to take the job at Washington, and once again becomes hesitant to accept the offer.

Eventually, Roy reveals why he has been so determined for the clerk to go to Washington: having borrowed money from a client in flagrant violation of the law, he is currently facing disbarment for unethical conduct; and though he is guaranteed to die soon anyway, Roy wants to beat the trial and remain a lawyer until the time of his death. To that end, he is grooming Joe to serve as his "friend" in the Justice Department, hoping that his protege will be able to swing the jury in his favor. Though he admires Roy as a mentor and respects the ruthlessly conservative maneuvers discussed that evening Joe is still an idealist, and admits to great reluctance towards the idea of being involved in open corruption, prompting an angry outburst from Roy; cowed, Joe decides to consider this.

Roy spends the next few scenes out of sight while his protege struggles to deal with his increasingly disordered private life. In this case, following numerous flirtations with a coworker, Louis Ironson, Joe eventually comes out of the closet to both his mother and his wife, triggering immediate upheaval: his mother sells her home in Utah and heads for New York in an attempt to discuss the matter with him in person, Harper flees the apartment and into her drug-fueled delusions, and Joe himself suffers a stress-induced ulcer and begins coughing up blood. After being discharged from the hospital after two days and finding Harper missing, Joe arrives at Roy's home with his decision: though he doesn't mention his sexuality at any point in the conversation, he finally admits that he can't take the job.

Losing his temper, Roy bombards his failed protege with insults, dismisses his life-threatening ulcer as "a little moral nosebleed," and tells him to "fuck himself sideways." Though he initially seems mollified when Joe insists that he loves and respect Roy and his work, the clerk's idealism still infuriates him. It is at this point that Roy confesses the role he played in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two apparent spies caught giving nuclear weapon designs to the Russian government during the 1950s: though Julius was confirmed as a spy, Ethel's guilt was far more questionable and the court initially seemed as though they were going to give her a life sentence. However, Roy used his influence to illegally pressure court officials into changing Ethel's sentence to death in the electric chair alongside her husband, and in the present, openly gloats over the fact that she died because of him.

Joe is shocked at the revelation that his mentor involved himself in an act of corruption tantamount to murder, and suggests that Roy is simply too sick to realize what he's saying - only for Roy to fly into a rage and attack him. In the ensuing confrontation, the lawyer is flung to the ground, prompting Joe to flee the scene in shock. Briefly overwhelmed by his worsening symptoms, Roy finds himself collapsing and unable to call for help. However, he is then visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg herself, who calls for an ambulance and remains with him until help arrives.

Act II: Perestroika

Roy is soon delivered to hospital; though the official diagnosis of liver cancer initially causes some confusion, his influence in the White House allows him to be signed up for a drug trial in which he can receive the AZT needed to treat him. By an astonishing coincidence, he also ends up in the care of Belize, a homosexual nurse and a friend of Louis Ironson.

Belize is fully aware of the infamous lawyer's history of persecuting homosexuals and openly contemptuous of his patient, but decides to tolerate his presence out of professionalism. As a result, Roy finds himself being attended to by someone not afraid to answer back for a change, triggering in a verbal sparring match between the two - the former pelting his nurse with racist insults and homophobic slurs, the latter parrying every offence with a quip of his own. Over the course of the conversation, Roy swings wildly between baiting Belize with offers of friendship, threatening him with legal action for telling him the truth, regaling him with tales of pubic lice, and even bragging of the fact that he demanded to be give a facelift under local anesthetic - being wide awake to see his face being "lifted up like a dinner napkin." However, when Belize attempts to leave the room, Roy's composure briefly fractures and he loudly insists that the nurse stay and talk, perhaps being more afraid of dying alone than he's prepared to admit.

It is at this point that Belize decides to give his patient some important advice "from one faggot to another": Roy's claims of liver cancer have actually put him in serious danger, as the oncologists at the hospital will insist on giving him radiation therapy - a treatment plan that will only damage Roy's compromised immune system further and probably kill him outright if he cannot persuade the doctors to change their minds. Furthermore, Belize also warns him that his access to AZT isn't guaranteed: though the drug trial will indeed give the patient access to life-saving AZT, the trial's experimental nature means that every test subject is put through a double-blind in order to limit bias; half the test subjects will be given AZT, the other half will be given useless placebos, and neither the subjects or the doctors will know which is which. Despite hating Roy, he advises him to pull what little strings he has left if he wants to acquire treatment.

As soon as Belize leaves the room, Roy grabs the telephone and begins using his political influence to acquire exclusive access to AZT, threatening to reveal the existence of certain slush funds to the press if his demands are not met. Some time after this, Belize returns to find that Roy has been provided with an entire mini-fridge of AZT pills, much to the lawyer's delight. For good measure, he refuses to share any of them, even though Belize points out that he can easily afford to spare a few bottles for other patients in need. The discussion quickly turns ugly: Roy once again assaults his nurse with a progressively more unpleasant array of racist, homophobic, elitist slurs and doesn't stop until Belize loses his temper and calls him a "greedy Jew." Amused that he was able to get the nurse to stoop to his level, Roy allows him to take a single bottle from the fridge.

Left alone with his thoughts for a time, Roy is once again visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. By this time, Roy's disbarment trial is in progress, and with no influence in the area, he's been left effectively blind and unable to sway the court's decision. However, Ethel offers to pay a visit and see how things are progressing, much to the lawyer's amusement. However, this once again leaves Roy alone in the hospital.

Edging closer and closer to death as time carries on, he soon receives his first living visitor from outside the hospital: Joe. Having been carrying on an affair with Louis and grappling with his own internalized homophobia, he's recently suffered another emotional crisis, and now wants to clear the air with Roy. They share a final friendly discussion together, musing on the state of the country and the state of their lives; Roy even gives Joe his paternal blessing to do whatever he wishes with his marriage. Eventually, Joe feels comfortable enough to reveal his homosexuality to Roy, admitting that he left his wife to be with a man. His mentor is immediately shocked and angry, and ends up accidentally ripping the IV out of his arm in his attempts to confront Joe, shedding blood all over the floor, the corridor outside and Joe himself. As Belize struggles to subdue the patient before he bleeds to death or infects anyone, Roy screams at Joe to return to his wife. Bewildered and still unaware that Roy is suffering from AIDS, Joe departs.

Later that day, Roy is sedated with morphine to dull the now-excruciating pain, and is soon reduced to wandering the hospital corridors in a confused attempt to escape the building. At one point, he becomes so delirious that he mistakes Belize for the angel of death and actually asks him what Heaven is like, allowing Belize a moment to wax poetic as he helps Roy back into bed - with the understanding that his patient will be dying very soon. That night, Ethel's ghost returns to the hospital and reveals the full extent of Roy's defeat: the trial is long since over, and Roy has been disbarred. All his efforts to remain a lawyer have failed.

Seemingly disengaging from reality altogether, Roy appears to mistake Ethel for his mother and begs her for comfort in his final moments. In spite of everything Roy did to her and her family, Ethel is briefly overwhelmed with sympathy and sings Roy a lullaby as he slowly passes away. However, the moment she finishes, Roy sits bolt upright and triumphantly reveals he was just toying with her, and gloats over the fact that he finally got Ethel Rosenberg to sing... only for his heartrate monitor to suddenly flatline. Moments later, a very bemused Roy Cohn dies - for real this time.

Belize then calls Louis to the hospital and enlists his help in stealing Roy's stash of AZT, intending to dispense it to other AIDS patients. However, despite still hating Roy and everything he stands for, Belize can't help but admit some degree of pity after witnessing the lawyer's final miseries, and requests that Louis recite the Kaddish over Roy's body out of respect. Initially unsure of how to proceed, given his estrangement from orthodox Judaism, Louis is soon guided through the pray by Ethel Rosenberg's ghost, who recites the entire Kaddish alongside him and concludes with a final "you son of a bitch" in Roy's direction.

With this done, Roy's AZT is stolen and distributed to more deserving patients - including Louis' ex-boyfriend, Prior Walter - before Belize finally alerts the hospital to Roy's demise.

Quotes

I wish I was an octopus. A fuckin' octopus! Eight lovin' arms and all those suckers. Know what I mean?
~ Roy's first lines.
Roy: Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels: "gay", "homosexual", "lesbian." You think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don't tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn't understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can't get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me?

Henry: No.
Roy: No. I have clout — lots! I pick up that phone, dial fifteen numbers, and guess who's on the other end of the line - in under five minutes, Henry?
Henry: The President.
Roy: Better! His wife.
Henry: I'm impressed.
Roy: I don't want you to be impressed, Henry. I want you to understand. This is not sophistry, and this is not hypocrisy. This is reality. I have sex with men, but unlike nearly every other man of which this is true, I bring the guy I'm screwing to Washington, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand, because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual: Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.

~ Roy excusing himself from his own homophobia.
Unethical? You trying to embarrass me in front of my friend? [...] Aw boy, you are really something. What do you think this is, Sunday School? [...] This is gastric juices churning! This is enzymes and acid! This is intestinal, is what this is! Bowel movement and blood-red meat. This place, this is politics, Joe. This is the game of being alive. And you think you're above that? And you think you're what, above that? Above alive is - what - dead, in the clouds. You're alive, goddammit. Plant the fort, stay a while. I'm sick. They smell I'm weak. They want blood this time. I must have eyes in Justice. In Justice, you will protect me.
~ Roy losing his temper at Joe at the restaurant.
Roy: What is this Ethel, Halloween? You trying to scare me? Well you're wasting your time 'cause I'm scarier than you are any day of the week! So beat it, Ethel! Boo! Better dead than red! Somebody trying to shake me up? From the throne of God in heaven to the belly of hell, you can all fuck yourselves and then go jump in the lake because I am not afraid of you or death or hell or anything!

Ethel Rosenberg: I'll be seeing you soon, Roy. Julius sends his regards.
Roy: Yeah, well send this to Julius! [gives her the finger]

~ Roy arguing with Ethel's ghost.
I fooled you, Ethel! I knew it was you the whole time! I can't believe you actually feel for that Ma stuff! I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally, make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I win! [flatlines] Aaaaah f**k...
~ Roy celebrates prematurely.

Trivia

  • Roy Cohn was based on the real historical figure; most of the details within the play are accurate, including Roy's homosexuality, AIDS and his attempts to cover up his illness. However, the reasons for Roy's disbarment were actually more extensive than appropriating client funds: among other things, he also lied on a bar application, and even attempted to write himself into a dying coma patient's will by forcing a pen into his hand and making him sign his name.
  • Roy is also arguably the most openly malicious of the villains in Angels In America: while the angels do want to prevent humanity from progressing further and force Prior to carry their new book of prophecy as a symptom of AIDS, they are motivated by fear and loss, and are eventually persuaded to put aside their mission; similarly Joe makes immensely selfish decisions over the course of the story and has made even more questionable choices during his legal career, but he at least has limits and never crosses the line into deliberate cruelty. By contrast, Roy is openly malicious, greedy, and unrepentant for his crimes - and even when he can no longer accomplish his goals, he goes out of his way to antagonize people seemingly for no other reason than to amuse himself.
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