Roger Corman, Hollywood mentor and ‘King of the Bs’, dies aged 98

Roger Corman, the Oscar-winning so-called “King of the Bs” who helped turn out such low-budget classics as Little Shop of Horrors and gave many of Hollywood’s most famous actors and directors early breaks, has died aged 98.

Corman died on Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, California, his daughter Catherine Corman said on Saturday in a statement.

“He was generous, open-hearted and kind to all those who knew him,” the statement said. “When asked how he would like to be remembered, he said, ‘I was a filmmaker, just that.’”

Starting in 1955, Corman helped create hundreds of films as a producer and director, among them Black Scorpion, Bucket of Blood and Bloody Mama.

A remarkable judge of talent, he hired such aspiring filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese. In 2009, Corman received an honorary Academy Award.

Obit Roger Corman
The roots of Hollywood’s golden age in the 1970s can be found in Corman’s films (Reed Saxon/AP, File)

“You can gamble a little bit more. You can experiment. You have to find a more creative way to solve a problem or to present a concept.”

The roots of Hollywood’s golden age in the 1970s can be found in Corman’s films.

Jack Nicholson made his film debut as the title character in a 1958 Corman quickie, The Cry Baby Killer, and stayed with the company for biker, horror and action films, writing and producing some of them.

Other actors whose careers began in Corman movies included Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn.

Boxcar Bertha, starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine, was an early film by Scorsese.

Corman’s directors were given minuscule budgets and often told to finish their films in as little as five days.

When Howard, who would go on to win a best director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, pleaded for an extra half day to reshoot a scene in 1977 for Grand Theft Auto, Corman told him: “Ron, you can come back if you want, but nobody else will be there.”

Initially only drive-ins and specialty theatres would book Corman films, but as teenagers began turning out, national chains gave in.

Corman’s pictures were open for their time about sex and drugs, such as his 1967 release The Trip, an explicit story about LSD written by Nicholson and starring Jane Fonda and Dennis Hopper.

Meanwhile, he discovered a lucrative sideline releasing prestige foreign films in the United States, among them Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and Volker Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum. The latter two won Oscars for best foreign language film.

Corman got his start as a messenger boy for Twentieth Century-Fox, eventually graduating to story analyst. After quitting the business briefly to study English literature for a term at Oxford, he returned to Hollywood and launched his career as a movie producer and director.

Obit Roger Corman
Corman received an honorary Academy Award in 2009 (Daniel Cole/AP, File)

Some of his former underlings repaid his kindness years later. Coppola cast him in The Godfather, Part II, Jonathan Demme included him in The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia and Howard gave him a part in Apollo 13.

Most of Corman’s movies were quickly forgotten by all but die-hard fans. A rare exception was 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors, which starred a bloodthirsty plant that feasted on humans and featured Nicholson in a small but memorable role as a pain-loving dental patient.

It inspired a long-lasting stage musical and a 1986 musical adaptation starring Steve Martin, Bill Murray and John Candy.

In 1963, Corman initiated a series of films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The most notable was The Raven, which teamed Nicholson with veteran horror stars Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone.

Directed by Corman on a rare three-week schedule, the horror spoof won good reviews, a rarity for his films. Another Poe adaptation, House of Usher, was deemed worthy of preservation by the Library of Congress.

Roger William Corman was born in Detroit and raised in Beverly Hills, but “not in the affluent section”, he once said. He attended Stanford University, earning a degree in engineering, and arrived in Hollywood after three years in the Navy.

After his stint at Oxford, he worked as a television stagehand and literary agent before finding his life’s work.

In 1964 he married Julie Halloran, a UCLA graduate who also became a producer. They had three children: Catherine, Roger and Brian.

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