May 23, 2007
'Barney Miller's' Officer Kogan is back on campus after lifetime as doctor and actor, and now, finally, a Cornell grad
Milt Kogan graduates with his College of Agriculture and Life Sciences class this weekend. The agricultural sciences major will then stay in town for two more weeks after Commencement -- to attend his 50th Cornell Reunion.
In a long and amazing life, Kogan, 71, has been practicing medicine (board certified in family practice) for 40 years while also appearing in more than 200 TV shows, including "Barney Miller" (as Officer Kogan), "The Rockford Files," "Kojak" and "Quincy"; 16 movies, including "Lucky Lady" with Burt Reynolds, "Brewsters' Millions" with Richard Pryor and "Bachelor Party" with Tom Hanks; and more than 200 commercials.
Oh, yes, he also has three advanced degrees -- a doctor of osteopathic medicine from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, an M.D. from the University of California (UC)-Irvine and a master's of public health in epidemiology from UC-Los Angeles.
He has done all this while never finishing his Cornell education. In 1956 he left after his junior year to go directly go medical school.
"My dad couldn't afford the tuition at Cornell, which was $300 in the College of Agriculture, and he kept pushing me, 'enough school, you gotta go do something with your life, go be something,'" recalls Kogan. Then, at an away game, the 6-foot-4-inch Kogan, who was captain of Cornell's basketball team, met the registrar of the Philadelphia medical school. He agreed to accept Kogan with only three years of college.
"So feeling the pressure that I had to make a living I went directly to medical school. It was a stupid, silly decision but that's what I did," Kogan said.
Serendipity and good timing would come into play yet again when, after receiving his M.D., he ran into a friend in Los Angeles who suggested that to meet women he enroll in an acting class. One of his instructors happened to be Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek" fame.
"After medical school ... I was so numb. ... I went [to the class] for girls but I was finding areas in myself that were so unavailable to me with all of my education. And I became so enamored of acting as an art form. Even today, I feel it's a consummate art."
Indeed, TV commercials followed as advertisers sought out "regular-looking people for their ads."
"When you're hot in Hollywood, you're hot. I got so successful that it overwhelmed any kind of medical thought." He became a member of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (voting for and attending the Oscars for 15 years) and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (voting for the Emmys).
But he never abandoned medicine; teaching world health problems for a semester around the world on a floating campus, the University of the Seven Seas, he had an epiphany.
"On that trip, I realized there were other things going on other than the American way of life," Kogan said. "And I felt guilty about being this very wealthy doctor/actor." That led to him spending almost three years in the Peace Corps in Burkino Faso, West Africa, with his wife and two young children.
Back in the United States, he would intermittently take breaks from his acting and Beverly Hills medical practice to serve two-year stints: one, in Harlowton, Mont., a small ranching community, with the National Health Service Corps, another with a farming community in Vermillion, S.D., and another with the U.S. Army in Hanau, West Germany.
In Los Angeles, "I always kept my hand in medicine, taking crazy positions, serving, for example, as medical director for the Indian Health Service, or for facilities for the mentally retarded, or in later years with the homeless and mentally ill of L.A.'s inner city."
Then, last year, when Kogan's fourth child, Millay, graduated from Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, she teased her dad about her being the only Kogan to graduate from an Ivy League school. That prompted Kogan's wife, Susan, to push for the good doctor to take a respite from his hectic life and return to Cornell.
"My best friends through the years have always been my Cornell friends. Susan has always been enamored by them and thinks this place is the 'magic kingdom.'"
He reapplied to Cornell, got some German credits from a community college transferred and has taken the remaining 12 credits required to graduate, including Introduction to Animal Science ("what did I ever know before about goats and swine?"), Visual Communications, horticulture's Wines and Vines, and Democracy, Science and Education in the education department.
"I have found it daunting, formidable -- it's been quite a challenge," says Kogan of his Cornell semester. "One forgets how bright all these kids are. It's been humbling ... but somehow, I'm still standing."
And what is this actor/doctor's advice to his fellow grads? "It doesn't take long to get to age 71," he says. "Instead of avoiding stuff, being cool, throw yourself into an organization and do things you wouldn't have tried otherwise." And he stressed, talk to the person next to you. "You meet exceptional people here, that's the real value of coming to a place like this. And they influence who you become."