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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Roger Corman, low-budget filmmaker who launched many careers, dies at 98

CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 27: Roger Corman presents The Grand Prix Award during the closing ceremony during the 76th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 27, 2023 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)  (Andreas Rentz)
By James Hohmann Washington Post

Roger Corman, a low-budget but resourceful Hollywood filmmaker who churned out dozens of laughably ridiculous and ridiculously profitable movies about crab monsters, a human-eating plant and buxom women in prison, and who helped launch the careers of Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola and other promising actors and directors, died May 9 at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 98.

His daughter Catherine Corman announced the death but did not provide a cause.

There have been mavericks working outside the major studio system since the earliest days of film, but few have been so stingy and so financially successful for so long as Corman. He entered the business in the 1950s, just as a U.S. Supreme Court antitrust ruling loosened the tight grip that a few big studio bosses had long exerted over the production and distribution of movies.

Corman became one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of all time, but his films rarely warranted consideration by mainstream critics. He worked in a remarkable array of genres – horror, gangster, western, science fiction, the drug movie – and he was applauded by a core of devoted followers and even some reviewers for flashes of craftsmanship and a playful sense of the absurd.

Even if Corman’s name would never be mentioned in the same breath as Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock, he was a serious and disciplined producer and director who followed a consistent formula: quick and cheap. He scouted acting schools to find budding talent who would work for low wages just to get their names and faces in front of the public.

That is how in 1958 he found Nicholson, who had moved from New Jersey and worked as an office boy at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.

Nicholson made his screen debut in Corman’s “Cry Baby Killer” (1958) as a distraught teenager who takes hostages at gunpoint. In a collaboration that lasted more than a decade, Corman gave Nicholson greater responsibility, letting him produce and write a variety of films.

Corman met Coppola when he called the UCLA film school to send over its brightest student to reedit a bunch of Russian science-fiction films Corman had bought on the cheap and hoped to release theatrically. In particular, Corman wanted someone who could edit out the anti-American propaganda.

Corman said he was especially impressed when the student editor, Coppola, not only made the required changes, but also added new footage to one film that included monsters made to look like parts of the human reproductive anatomy. It did not take long for Corman to give Coppola the freedom to write and direct scripts – years before Coppola won international acclaim with “The Godfather” (1972) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979).

Film critic Leonard Maltin said Corman had a profound influence on filmmaking by hiring “an astonishing array of talented young people who were just waiting for their big break. That roll call is amazing. They all look upon him as a kind of cinematic godfather.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences cited Corman’s success as a mentor of talent in awarding him an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2009.

Corman played decisive roles in the early careers of actors Robert De Niro (“Bloody Mama,” 1970), Sylvester Stallone (“Death Race 2000,” 1975) and Pam Grier (“Women in Cages,” 1971); and directors such as Martin Scorsese (“Boxcar Bertha,” 1972), Peter Bogdanovich (“Targets,” 1968). James Cameron, who later directed “Titanic,” got his start as a model maker for Corman on the set of “Battle Beyond the Stars” (1980).

Corman gave Ron Howard, best known for his acting roles on “Happy Days” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” his first opportunity to direct a feature-length picture with the comedy “Grand Theft Auto” (1977). Years later, the well-established Howard fittingly cast Corman as a tightwad congressman in “Apollo 13” (1995).

Stories about Corman’s tight-fistedness came a penny a dozen. To cut corners, he recycled the same sets for multiple movies and accepted bets that he could complete shooting in days, when others took weeks or months.

To a director who asked for a helicopter to film an action sequence, Corman was said to have suggested an alternative: “I’ll get you a ladder.”

When Nicholson auditioned for the role of a dentist’s comically masochistic patient in “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960), the film about the bloodthirsty plant, the actor said he was forced to hop over a studio fence because Corman was too cheap to have a guard open the gate.

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Moviemaking ‘was all so easy’

Roger William Corman was born in Detroit on April 5, 1926. His father, an engineer, later moved the family to Beverly Hills, Calif., for the better climate. Growing up in the Depression was said to have influenced some of Corman’s devotion to frugality, and the future director was said to never have wasted paper scraps or pencil stubs, if more could be made of them.

Corman served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from Stanford University in 1947 with an industrial engineering degree. His major interest as a young man was making a fortune by the time he was 30, a path he said could be found only through real estate or filmmaking.

Through family connections, he took a messenger job at Twentieth Century Fox studios and was a literary agent in Los Angeles. During this period, he cobbled together a script about an outlaw who flees to the desert while on the run from the police. Corman’s boss at the literary agency sold the story to a small studio called Allied Artists for $4,000, and it was produced under the name “Highway Dragnet” (1954).

“It was all so easy I could hardly believe it,” Corman later said. He also negotiated a co-producer credit on “Highway Dragnet” and used the proceeds to partially finance and produce a science-fiction movie that he filmed in six days and called “It Stalked the Ocean Floor.”

“I shot it on location at Malibu and I brought it in right on budget – $12,000,” he told the New York Times. “I had a narrator saying, ‘Deep in the uncharted reaches of Yucatán …’ while my camera panned around a beach at Malibu, trying desperately to keep the auto traffic on Highway 1 out of the shot. I sold the finished picture to a distributor named Lippert, who told me my title was too arty and changed it to ‘The Monster from the Ocean Floor.’”

Corman followed that success with profitable westerns, monster movies and teen exploitation films. He also made two crucial breakthroughs, based on his clout as a moneymaking producer. First was persuading distributors to give him money in advance for three pictures in a row, thereby guaranteeing financing that many other independent filmmakers lacked.

Another turning point, he said, was to persuade the low-budget American International Pictures to give him a slightly bigger budget, a three-week shooting schedule (instead of 10 days) and the use of color film stock to make a slightly more artistic production. The result was “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1960), which became one of the highest-grossing independent films of the year.

It was also the first of a cycle of Edgar Allan Poe stories Corman filmed over the next three years. Each starred Vincent Price, whose hammy acting defined the macabre plotlines as much as the lush color photography and comparably lavish costuming.

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Flop and a return to form

Corman, who described himself as a liberal, made one foray into what he considered serious and timely political moviemaking. “The Intruder” (1962) starred William Shatner as a Northern rabble-rouser who whips up old racial hatreds in a Southern town that is about to integrate its schools. Corman directed the film on location in a small town where the Ku Klux Klan exerted great power. Shatner led a parade of real, hooded Klansmen through the Black part of town. They burned a cross.

“We shot late at night,” Corman told the London Daily Telegraph. “I said, ‘Cut, print!’ and everybody went, ‘Yeah, we’re out of here!’ Guys raced to their cars, the grips threw the last couple of things in the trucks and we just drove straight north.”

To keep it realistic, Corman insisted the characters use racial epithets throughout. He said the language prevented the film from receiving a Motion Picture Production Code seal of approval, without which hundreds of theaters refused to show it.

“The Intruder” was Corman’s only commercial failure, and he soon returned to the formula he knew best: science-fiction and counterculture dramas as well as lucrative movies about sexually exploited nurses, teachers, stewardesses, hookers and inmates. Topless girls and intense cat fight scenes helped “The Big Doll House” (1971), which cost about $125,000 to make, gross $10 million.

In 1970, Corman married Julie Halloran, who had producing credits on many of his films. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Corman once said he did not object to enormous budgets, if the money was spent for a good reason.

“When I see Jim Cameron spending $150 million on ‘Titanic,’ you look at the film and say, ‘Yes, it’s on the screen.’ So I understand what he did and I have no objection,” he told a British Columbia newspaper. “What I do object to is when you have a picture with two people talking in a room and they say it costs $80 million. At that point I say, ‘OK, tell me: Where did the money go?’”