Longtime Kansas City film producer and director Rick Cowan died of a heart attack around 2 a.m. on Monday. Cowan’s wife, Wendy Thompson, announced the news on Facebook.
The two had shared a nice evening together before he started feeling poorly, Thompson tells KCUR.
Cowan had worked in Kansas City’s film industry since arriving in town in the late 1970s.
“He was so unique, because not only was he a director and producer, he was an actor and a location manager,” says Kansas City Film Commissioner Stephane Scupham. “He was a champion for our industry, always advocating for it to be strong and to grow, for all the people in it to be working, and for all of these projects that we can have come to Kansas City.”
Cowan was an advisor to the Kansas City Film Office, and had served on the Missouri Motion Media Association board. In 2014, Scupham says, Cowan accompanied her to Jefferson City to lobby for tax incentives for filmmakers.
He spoke to lawmakers, she says, “from the point of view of somebody who is a full-time freelancer in the industry, because he knew that full-time freelancer is a real career. He was an example of somebody who does that.”
"It’s a great loss to the Kansas City film community and a deep personal loss for me," says University of Kansas film professor Kevin Willmott, who worked with Cowan on 9th Street, CSA: Confederate States of America and The Only Good Indian.
"When I first came back to start making films here, Rick was the key person I met to really help me in my travels," Willmott says. "He was just a really great producer and more than anything a great friend. We talked every day about politics and race and religion and all the things that really mattered in life. It’s rare you get to find those people and it was a real honor to get to make films with him."
Cowan was born in Macon, Missouri, and came to Kansas City in the late 1970s, Thompson says. The two met in the mid-1980s at an audition for an Independence Community Theater production of "Our Town."
“He got cast and I did not,” Thompson says. “I didn’t see him again until I was doing a show in the summer for what used to be Theater Under the Stars outside of Penn Valley Park. I was in a play that was having trouble finding enough men for the cast. He didn’t have to audition – he just walked in. We looked at each other and said, ‘I remember you.’”
They started dating when the show was over, and the two proceeded on parallel career paths in Kansas City’s creative community, Cowan with his film work and Thompson as the creator and owner of The Mystery Train dinner theater company.
“We were pretty good about bouncing creative ideas off of each other, he was a support person, another voice, another opinion,” Thompson says. “Rick was an incredibly smart man.”
Publicly, Thompson notes, “he was very irreverent, always had a great sense of humor. He was just a charming man – anybody will tell you that.”
But she jokes about what he was like at home.
“I always tell people, ‘You think he’s a great guy until you live with him. But he’s the main source of inspiration when I’m trying to figure out how to kill people in my next play!’ He’d laugh about that but sometimes the urge was there! He was a little OCD about a lot of things. He had his quirks and wanted to have control of things, which is why he was a really good producer. And very talented. He had a very artistic eye and was very articulate.”
Besides their common interest in the theater and entertainment, the two developed a love for travel.
He had recently been working on a series of commercials, Thompson says, but had a quiet summer.
“He kind of had hit a little lull and we were planning on taking a trip to Africa next month,” she says. “We’d taken a lot of trips and they’d been great. Africa was on his bucket list.”
Now, there’ll be a “wrap party,” she says.
“That’s one thing he said: I just want one big party when I go.”
Until those details are finalized, more formal services have been scheduled for Monday, August 15 at White Chapel Funeral Home, 6600 NE Antioch Road, Gladstone, Missouri, 64119. Visitation will be from 2 to 5 p.m. with a life celebration beginning at 5.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.