Roger Corman, B-Movie King and Iconoclast Who Launched Major Directors with Low Budgets, Dies at 98 SuperNayr

Roger Corman, the maverick producer of B-movies and iconoclastic subjects whose innovative low-budget enterprises launched the careers of numerous major filmmakers, died on Thursday at his home in Santa Monica. He was 98.

Corman’s career encompassed seven decades and more than 500 producing credits, including early work that launched the careers of major Hollywood figures such as Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Frances Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Peter Bogdonavich, Gale Anne Hurd, John Sayles, Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme. Yet Corman resented the commercial studio system, and as both producer and as a director himself, he pursued his cheap, no-frills filmmaking style at all costs, while using lowbrow genre tropes as a Trojan horse for socially conscious themes. 

'Megalopolis'
'Megalopolis'

Over the years, Corman’s name has been most closely associated with the zany escapist enterprises often referred to as exploitation films, a term he abhorred. With producing credits such as “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “The Wasp Woman,” and “Death Race 2000” among his successes, it’s easy to see how that association settled in. At the same time, Corman’s seminal work with American International Pictures in the 1960s and 1970s went well beyond grindhouse tropes thanks to several of the young filmmakers he brought into his orbit, including Scorsese with his debut “Boxcar Bertha” and Demme’s “Caged Heat.” 

Behind the camera, Corman is best-known for his six colorful adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories, starting with 1960’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” starring Vincent Price. His 1966 bike film “The Wild Angels” paved the way for “Easy Rider,” while the title for the 1954 racing thriller “The Fast and the Furious” was licensed by Universal Pictures nearly 50 years later for one of the biggest movie franchises of all time. Despite all these achievements, Corman’s proudest filmmaking accomplishment was also among his most painful: “The Intruder,” a black-and-white 1962 drama starring William Shatner as a New York white supremacist who travels to the south to battle integration. 

A radical work for its time that confronted American racism on the brink of the Civil Rights movement, the movie was a commercial failure and one of the only Corman efforts that didn’t make its money back. However, the experience led Corman to revelation about how to confront meaningful subjects in his work going forward. Years later, in the documentary “Corman’s World,” he put it this way: “My theme, my message, what’s important to me should be the subtext.” 

Roger William Corman was born on April 5, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan and initially attended Stanford to study industrial engineering in addition serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII. A few years after his graduation, he worked his way up from the mail room at 20th Century Fox to be a script reader, and rejected most of the projects that came his way. One project that he did flag as intriguing would later became “The Gunfighter,” starring Gregory Peck, and the end result incorporated many of Corman’s ideas. However, as Corman would later recall, his supervising story editor received a bonus for the success of the project while Corman received nothing. Frustrated over the system, he quit and directed his first feature, 1954’s “The Monster From the Ocean Floor,” which set the template for many Corman efforts to come. 

Joining forces with his younger brother Gene (who died in 2020), Corman began making energetic genre pictures with a unique economy of means, which helped him land a three-picture deal at American International Pictures, where Corman would produce work for the bulk of the 1960s. Corman quickly grew confident in his fast-and-loose approach to film production: His 1960 production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” starring newbie Jack Nicholson, was famously shot in two days and one night. 

But the brevity of Corman’s shoots didn’t come at the expense of his investment in their substance. As the country’s political climate heated up towards the end of the decade, Corman himself grew more iconoclastic and identified with hippy culture even though his own youth experiences predated it. For the psychedelic 1967 LSD opus “The Trip,” which was written by a young Jack Nicholson, Corman took the drug for research. 

During that time, he also fostered the careers of many emerging filmmakers, producing work such as Scorsese’s “Boxcar Bertha” and Bogdonavich’s “Targets.” He also missed out on producing “Easy Rider” after AIP couldn’t come to an agreement on profit-sharing with director-star Dennis Hopper, and passed on producing Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” when the director declined Corman’s request to rewrite the Italian-American milieu as an all-Black story. 

But even as Corman missed out on some big paydays, he remained a prominent maverick of independent film production. In the early 1980s, he started the production and distribution company New World Pictures, which introduced an innovated approach to bringing European arthouse films like “Cries and Whispers” and “Amacord” to the U.S. by screening them at drive-ins. 

Nevertheless, the rise of the blockbuster era with 1975’s “Jaws” had a negative effect on the currency of Corman’s cheaper brand of escapism, whether or not he injected it with more meaning beneath the surface. From that period and on, Corman’s work as a producer became an increasingly marginalized casualty of the home video market, where projects like “Play Murder for Me,” “Alien Avengers,” and “Lady Killer” had far less impact than the more costly Hollywood tentpoles that held sway — and continue to hold sway — over popular culture. His final directing credit was 1990’s “Frankenstein Unbound.” 

Corman remained frustrated with the financial equation of tentpoles for the rest of his career. “For $30 or $40 million you could rebuild a portion of slums of a city,” he said in one TV interview from the early aughts. “From both an artistic and commercial standpoint it is wrong to spend that much money and in addition I think there are better things you can do with that money in our society.” 

After years of claims from longtime colleagues that he was under-appreciated by the industry, Corman finally received an honorary Oscar in 2009. “I think that to succeed in this world you have to take chances,” he said in his acceptance speech. “The finest films being done today are done by the original innovative filmmakers who have the courage to take a chance and to gamble. So I say to you, keep gambling, keep taking chances.”

Corman is survived by his wife and longtime producing partner, Julie, and their four children. 

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