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Roger Corman's Greatest Legacy Was Giving So Many People Their Big Break

Jonathan Demme (left) on the set of his 1991 film "The Silence of the Lambs" with the actor playing the director of the FBI, Roger Corman, who gave Demme his start in show business

Roger Corman, who died last week at 98, was so important and influential that a thorough account of his impact would require a book (there have already been many – and documentaries, too). But the most impressive achievement of all is his mentorship of young actors, writers, and filmmakers, many of whom would go on to become giants in their own right—and his championing of talent that, for whatever reason, had fallen out of favor or never been properly appreciated. There are hundreds of examples of this. There were periods when it seemed as if Corman couldn't walk down the street without starting somebody else's career.

Corman headed several distribution companies over the decades, including The Filmgroup, Palo Alto Productions, New World Pictures and New Concorde (‘80s and beyond). But the one constant from one iteration to the next (after keeping budgets low) was the reliance on finding and training new talent and letting veteran actors who’d basically aged out of the business get a few more meaty roles while they were still able to work. If you go through his extended filmography you see a chain of causal connections between different, important people whose only binding characteristic is that, at some point, probably when they needed it most, Roger Corman took a chance on them.

Just for fun, go to the IMDb page of almost any Corman production from any decade, click on the first somewhat famous name you see in the cast or crew, and go over to their page. You will find yourself appreciating multiple significant movie careers that intersected with and often amplified other significant movie careers, all of which are also connected, somehow, to Corman. Spend enough time making connections between graduates of Corman's unofficial film school and you come around to the idea that Corman was the defining force in American filmmaking in the second half of the 20th century, and into the 21st, and will continue to be, because his students have students, and those students have students. 

Francis Coppola’s first film as a director was for Corman, “Dementia 13” (1959). He gave Corman a supporting role as a senator in "The Godfather, Part II" to express his appreciation. The last major public event Corman appeared at was the first public screening of Coppola's self-financed (i.e., independent) science fiction film "Megalopolis," which Coppola had been trying to make for three decades. The great Jonathan Demme got started in the business working for Corman by writing and producing "Angels as Hard as They Come" (1971) and "The Hot Box" (1975) for New World, then directed three films for Corman, "Caged Heat," "Crazy Mama" and "Fighting Mad" before moving on to major studio releases.

Coppola's colleague Martin Scorsese got his first real budget (albeit tiny by Hollywood standards) to make Corman’s gangster drama “Boxcar Bertha,” starring Barbara Hershey. Hershey had been in other films (including the rape drama “Last Summer” and “The Baby Maker,” about surrogate motherhood) but it was her performance as the title character in Scorsese's movie that established her as a serious actress with a Method edge. It was a sexually frank and often bloody exploitation picture with an art film veneer. Hershey described the filming as “the most fun I ever had making a movie.” She bonded with Scorsese and would go on to play Mary Magdalene for him 16 years later in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” 

Scorsese said that in making “Boxcar Bertha,” “I finally figured out where I belonged, in terms of how to make pictures.” Because of the low budget ethos of the distributor, Scorsese had to learn “total preparation” before shooting to avoid schedule problems and cost overruns due to indecision or lack of foresight. “On the first day of shooting,” Scorsese remembered, “he came down, and I was told ‘You’re gonna shoot all the scenes with the train in the first four days,’ which was like a baptism of fire, because when you’re shooting a train, and you do one take, the train’s gotta back up.” Corman told Scorsese, “Backing up takes time. We don’t have time!” Scorsese said the producer was great at figuring out how to solve problems quickly and get a project back on course. When he was supervising editor on “The Unholy Rollers,” a roller derby movie, the first cut only ran an hour and seven minutes, which was too short for theaters. Corman helped the crew devise two more scenes that could be shot quickly and get the running time up to 88 minutes, sufficient for release. 

Scorsese, of course, became a talent factory of his own, like many of the major artists mentioned in this piece, and there was a fascinating instance where one of his mentees found their way into Corman’s orbit, a decade after Scorsese left it. Scorsese’s assistant on “Taxi Driver" was a young writer and filmmaker named Amy Holden Jones. She met and married the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman on the production, and went on to become a film editor. One of her first editing gigs was “Hollywood Boulevard,” co-directed by Joe Dante (“The Howling,” “Gremlins”). Dante's first solo outing as a director was the Roger Corman production “Piranha” (1978). “Piranha” had special creature effects by Phil Tippett (who did the holographic chess scene in the first “Star Wars,” later known as “A New Hope” and went on to work for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Paul Vehoeven) and Chris Walas (future Oscar-winner for “The Fly”). 

Anyway, back to Amy Holden Jones: Spielberg wanted her to edit “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” but when production was delayed by Spielberg producing “Poltergeist” first, she turned it down and went to Corman and asked what she needed to do to become a director. Corman said it was difficult to tell from her only existing work as a filmmaker, a nonfiction short she’d done in grad school, that she could handle scripted features, but he let her go through his library of un-produced screenplays to find something she could use to make a proof-of-concept test piece. She chose a horror script by Rita Mae Brown and shot the first eight pages with her husband Chapman serving as cinematographer, edited it on Joe Dante’s Moviola, and showed it to Corman, who was so impressed that he hired her to expand it into a feature, 1982’s “The Slumber Party Massacre.” Jones has said that turning down the chance to edit what became the most successful movie of all time was the best decision she ever made. 

One of Scorsese’s go-to actors, Robert DeNiro, had his first major lead role in a Corman picture, the gangster movie “Bloody Mama,” opposite Angie Dickinson. Jack Nicholson got his first substantive role as a screen performer in Corman’s “The Cry Baby Killer” (1958) and established himself as a reliable supporting player in 1963’s “The Raven,” one of a string of Corman films released by American International Pictures (to whom Corman loaned himself out as a director) that were inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems. The latter series of movies also gave juicy lead roles to veteran genre film stars, including Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Edward G. Robinson, and Ray Milland, who were having trouble finding work in the ‘60s because of age discrimination and changing audience tastes. 

Nicholson’s experiences working for Corman emboldened him to want to write and produce as well as act, and generally be more proactive and personal in his work. Corman and his colleague and sorta-rival/occasional employer, producer Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures (AIP), both put out biker films for a period in the ‘60s. These became sort of a talent factory-within-a talent factory. Corman’s 1966 biker film “The Wild Angels” was a modest hit that emboldened one of its stars, Peter Fonda, to star in and co-write 1969’s “Easy Rider,” which combined established biker movie elements with counterculture philosophizing and aspects of the psychedelic-infused drug drama “The Trip” (1967), another Corman movie that starred Fonda. Nicholson wrote the screenplay for “The Trip” and got his first Oscar nomination, as Best Supporting Actor, for playing alcoholic lawyer and counterculture sympathizer George Hanson in “Easy Rider,” which launched him on the path to stardom. Another costar of “The Trip” was the director and cowriter of "Easy Rider," Dennis Hopper. Yet another major 1970s actor, Bruce Dern, was in both “The Wild Angels” and “The Trip,” arguably the first roles that let him display qualities that would be considered hallmarks of The Bruce Dern Character as displayed in "The King of Marvin Gardens," "Black Sunday" and "Coming Home."

Boris Karloff’s last film role was in the debut movie by film programmer and industry gadfly Peter Bogdanovich, “Targets,” about an assassin on the rampage at a drive-in movie theater where an elderly horror star named Byron Orlok (Karloff) is making a personal appearance; the film being shown on the drive-in screen is actually Corman’s “The Terror,” featuring none other than Boris Karloff. Bogdanovich got Karloff to star because Karloff still owed Corman two more days’ work as per their contract, and Corman had promised Bogdanovich he could do whatever he wanted as long as he brought the project in on time and on budget. 

That Bogdanovich was able to reuse older Corman in “Targets” material placed him squarely in a proud tradition. Corman was one of the most ferociously dedicated recyclers in movie history.  He often used sets, props, costumes and other items over and over throughout multiple productions, and took great pride in extracting every penny’s worth of value from things he’d paid for. 

He shot one of his most famous and successful films, "Little Shop of Horrors" (remade as a Broadway musical, a musical film, and an animated TV series) on the same sets he'd used to shoot "Bucket of Blood." Production lasted two days and one night, because that's how long he had before the tear-down began. The first movie appearance by actor Dick Miller, a regular in Corman's films as well as many films by Corman University alumni, was "Apache Woman." He he told NPR that he was playing “an Indian” and midway through filming, "Corman asked him, “Would you like to play a cowboy?” Miller asked, “‘Doing another movie already?’ He says, ‘No, in the same movie.’ So I ended up playing a cowboy and an Indian in my first movie.” The only movie Corman ever did that got close to being called big-budget was the 1980 “Star Wars” cash-in “Battle Beyond the Stars,” which boasted miniature spaceship and blue-screen FX of such quality that Corman reused them in more Corman productions, including “Space Raiders,” “Starquest II,” “Vampirella,” “The Fantastic Four,” “Dead Space” and “Forbidden World.”

“Battle” is a wonderful film to zero in on as an example of Corman turning every project into a film school and making the result resonate beyond the boundaries of one movie. For starters, “Battle” gave an unknown artist and film crew grunt named James Cameron what he later called his “big break,” doing production design, art direction, prop fabrication, and anything else that was needed. He had been recommended by his then-girlfriend and future wife and coproducer Gale Anne Hurd (later the executive producer on multiple iterations of “The Walking Dead”), who was employed by Corman at the time. Cameron went on to direct his first feature for Corman, “Piranha II: The Spawning." Actor Bill Paxton, who went to act for Cameron in four features, was a carpenter on  "Piranha II." Paxton also went on to star in one of the most highly regarded crime films of the 1990s, "One False Move," which was directed by Carl Franklin. Franklin was Corman's assistant for a time at Concord Pictures, and ended up directing three films for Corman. His debut feature, "Nowhere to Run," starred David Carradine, a name that pops up often in Corman's '70s and '80s credits.

“Battle Beyond the Stars” was scored by James Horner, his third-ever composing job. Acclaim for his work got Horner much higher-profile gigs on major studio films and made him one of the top film composers of that era (he did “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “48 HRS” soon after). Parts of Horner’s score were reused in 2001’s “Raptor,” a Corman production directed by Jim Wynorski, a B-movie veteran who started out as a publicist and screenwriter for Corman (his first produced script was Corman’s “Forbidden World’). 

See what I mean? Corman's influence was everywhere, and still is.

That's why there are so many cameos and supporting roles filled by Corman, who never considered himself an actor. Every time you saw him onscreen, tribute was being paid by someone he'd previously helped. Demme cast him in "Swing Shift," "The Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia," the 2004 remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Rachel Getting Married." Howard put him in "Apollo 13" as another senator. Dante cast him in "The Howling" (getting killed by a werewolf while stuck in a phone booth!) as well as in the HBO film "The Second Civil War" and "Looney Tunes: Back in Action." Writer-director Paul Bartel cast him in "Cannonball!" partly as a thank you for helping him get the film distributed; he'd made his directorial debut for Corman with 1975's "Death Race 2000," which costarred a barely known actor named Sylvester Stallone and was shot by Tak Fujimoto, who'd also filmed Corman's "Caged Heat" for Demme and would work with him many more times. Wim Wenders, who hadn't worked with Corman previously, put him in "The State of Things" as a tribute, alongside another filmmaker who'd meant a great deal to him, Samuel Fuller ("The Big Red One," "The Naked Kiss" et al).

There doesn't appear to be any common thread linking all the people that Corman helped make successful and famous, aside from the fact that he saw something in them. 

One of the most often-quoted lines from Corman is what he told a young TV actor named Ron Howard who came to him wanting to become a filmmaker and ended up debuting with “Grand Theft Auto,” which he also starred in. Corman told him, “If you do a good job, you won’t have to work for me for very long.” He probably told that to a lot of people who had the skills and ambition to break into the business and only needed a hand up.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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