The Legacy of Roger Corman, King of B Movies

The prolific B-movie director turns 90 on April 5th. We look at his influence on 10 of Hollywood's prominent directors, producers, writers, and actors.
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Roger Corman Photo

Director Roger Corman in the 1980s. (Photo: Photofest)

Roger Corman is synonymous with the B-movie, producing or directing more than 400 films in a career that’s spanned 60 years. From horror movies based on Edgar Allan Poe stories to exploitation thrillers with names like Women in Cages and Deathsport, he has provided audiences with a vital flood of energetic, pulpy entertainment. (“Some turned out better than others, but I believe I did try my best on all of them,” Corman said in 1999. “I never sloughed a picture.”)

In 2010, he received an Honorary Oscar, and his legacy can still be felt everywhere, from the 2008 film Death Race, which was a studio remake of his 1975 original Death Race 2000, to the careers of directors such as Quentin Tarantino, who has emulated the Corman style on films such as Death Proof.

But as Corman prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday, we decided to shine the spotlight on 10 artists whose careers got their start by working with him. Several Oscar-winning actors and directors learned the ropes of making low-budget, short-schedule films under his tutelage, and they’ve had affection and gratitude for the man ever since.

Peter Bogdanovich

In 1965, Peter Bogdanovich, who was merely writing about movies at the time, went to a screening and ran into Corman, who was aware of his work as a film journalist. Wondering if the young man was interested in making movies, Corman supposedly said, “I’m looking for something along the lines of Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai—but cheap.” From there, Bogdanovich began working as a writer for Corman, eventually directing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women and Targets before making the film that would launch his career, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. “Roger Corman gave me two of my best job opportunities, including my first four gigs in film production, and has been an encouraging mentor ever since,” Bogdanovich declared in his 1997 book Who the Devil Made It.

Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show:

James Cameron

Before Terminator, Titanic or Avatar, filmmaker James Cameron cut his teeth working for Corman, building miniatures for him before becoming the art director on the 1980 sci-fi film Battle Beyond the Stars and the second-unit director on the following year’s Galaxy of Terror. Soon after, Cameron directed his first feature, Piranha II: The Spawning, which paved the way for The Terminator and Aliens. “That was the best possible place for me,” Cameron would say of his time working on Corman productions, later adding, “We’d make a film in 21 days and the budget was $200,000. So it’s true guerrilla filmmaking. … It really was an opportunity to see how production actually works.”

Cameron's Piranha II: The Spawning:

Francis Ford Coppola

While a student at UCLA getting his masters in film, Francis Ford Coppola landed a job as Corman’s assistant. In 1963, Coppola was tapped to be his boss’s second-unit director on The Young Racers, a romantic drama, and directed Dementia 13, a Psycho rip-off produced by Corman that was shot in Ireland over 11 days. Soon after, Coppola left Corman’s employ and began enjoying the fruits of being an in-demand writer and director, earning acclaim for the late-1960s pictures Finian’s Rainbow and The Rain People and winning a screenplay Oscar for Patton. And even when Coppola became a household name thanks to the Godfather films, he honored his debt to Corman, casting him in a small part in The Godfather Part II. “The great thing about Roger was he exploited all of the young people who worked for him to the fullest, but at the same time, the other side of it was he really gave you responsibility and opportunities,” Coppola has said. “So it was a fair deal.”

Coppola's Finian's Rainbow:

Jonathan Demme

The Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs started out as a critic before falling under Corman’s sway, writing and directing films for the producer. Among them, there was 1974’s Caged Heat, a women’s prison drama, and the 1976 thriller Fighting Mad, which starred Peter Fonda. By the early 1980s, Jonathan Demme had graduated to studio films like the comedy-drama Melvin and Howard and the seminal concert film Stop Making Sense. But the lessons of Corman’s frugal filmmaking always stayed with him. “I try not to waste money,” he told The New York Times in 1979, later adding, “I’d feel as bad about squandering somebody’s $165,000 as squandering their $5 million.” Corman has a cameo as the FBI director in The Silence of the Lambs.

Demme's Fighting Mad:

Robert De Niro

The two-time Oscar-winner had only done a little film work before being cast in Corman’s Bloody Mama, a 1970 crime drama that starred Shelley Winters as real-life gang boss Ma Barker. (Robert De Niro played her son Lloyd.) “He was a very intense and dedicated actor whose life seemed to be centered more around acting than most actors I had met,” Corman would say of meeting De Niro. After the young actor met Martin Scorsese, who was also tutored by Corman, he would become an icon in films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. (And, of course, De Niro hooked up with a fellow Corman alum, Francis Ford Coppola, to make The Godfather Part II, for which De Niro won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.)

De Niro in Blood Mama:

Ron Howard

Because his first taste of Hollywood was through success as a child actor in The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, it’s hard to imagine that Ron Howard would have needed much help becoming a filmmaker. But Howard’s first film as a director, 1977’s Grand Theft Auto, came about because he agreed to star in a Corman production, the 1976 action film Eat My Dust, if he could helm the follow-up. After subsequently directing television movies, Howard got on a roll in the 1980s, transitioning from Night Shift to Splash to Cocoon, eventually winning Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind. In a 1990 interview, Corman recalled the conversation he’d had with Howard when the aspiring filmmaker expressed his desire to helm Grand Theft Auto. “I immediately said to him, ‘Ron, I always thought that you were born to be a director.’”

Howard's Grand Theft Auto:

Jack Nicholson

“He was my lifeblood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person.” Jack Nicholson’s praise of Corman is well-founded: The actor got his first film role in a Corman production, the 1958 thriller The Cry Baby Killer, and worked with him as a performer and writer for the next decade. Nicholson would go on to have one of the most celebrated careers of his generation, winning Oscars in three different decades. But he never had any illusions about the inconsistent quality of Corman’s shoestring-budget productions. “By mistake Roger would actually make a good picture every once in a while,” Nicholson said in 2011. “But I was never in it.”

Nicholson in The Cry Baby Killer:

Bill Paxton

The sturdy character actor grew up in Texas, moving to Los Angeles while he was still in his teens. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do in film, but he got hired to be a set director for Corman, eventually getting a small role in 1975’s Crazy Mama, which was directed by Jonathan Demme. Bill Paxton worked behind the scenes on several Corman productions, befriending another of the producer’s discoveries, James Cameron, who had been tapped to direct the second-unit work on Galaxy of Terror. “Jim just hired me on the spot,” Paxton once recalled, “I ended up working on his night crew in the art department.” Paxton decided to transition to acting, and Cameron cast him in a tiny part on The Terminator, but it was Paxton’s work as the freaked-out soldier in 1986’s Aliens that helped launch his career.

Paxton in Terminator:

John Sayles

When writer-director John Sayles broke into movies, it was through the strength of writing novels and short stories. But Hollywood was initially resistant to him. “I’ve never really gotten a job from a meeting,” Sayles said in 1985. “And one day my agent just called and said, ‘There’s a rewrite. It’s $10,000. It’s called Piranha. It’s for Roger Corman.’” He took the gig, which led to more work with the prolific producer. And Sayles used the money he made writing for Corman to finance his first feature, the ensemble indie drama Return of the Secaucus Seven. The two-time Oscar nominee credited Corman’s super-cheap productions for helping boost his creativity. “Almost everything I’ve done in movie writing has come with givens,” Sayles said after Return’s release. “‘We want to have a piranha attack every 15 minutes. We can’t kill the alligator by setting it on fire at the end because we need it in one piece for the publicity tour.’ But once you start writing, with those givens, it’s like a poem, poetry that has a form as opposed to free or blank verse.”

Sayles on Return of the Secaucus Seven:

Martin Scorsese

The acclaimed filmmaker got his second movie, 1972’s Boxcar Bertha, off the ground thanks to the resourceful, supportive producer. Corman had offered Martin Scorsese the script—about train robbers in love—at a period when the young filmmaker was floundering. “He used people so young they had nothing to lose, or people so old they no longer had anything at stake,” Scorsese would later say of Corman. “But everyone I’ve talked to who knew him back then, they all kind of loved Roger.” Scorsese would go on to make indelible films such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas, and as one of the torch-bearers of auteurist cinema he’s always stuck up for Corman’s pragmatic, disciplined filmmaking approach. “Corman, as both a director and a producer, taught not only craft and technique but also clarity of thought and, above all, economy of means.”

Scorcese's Boxcar Bertha: