I never knew Jonathan Demme well. But he was part of my early days in the film industry, and so I add my voice to those who are paying tribute to this talented, eclectic filmmaker, who died of cancer Wednesday at age 73.
Back in 1974, in the early days of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, I was a jill-of-all-trades, working on scripts and publicity releases, while dipping my toes into the mysterious business of film production. Jonathan had attracted Roger’s attention by crafting the script for a motorcycle movie in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon. By the time I joined the New World staff, he had his first shot as a director. Though he filmed in East L.A. instead of in Roger’s go-to exotic location, Manila, Jonathan’s Caged Heat was hailed by some perceptive critics as both a tribute to and a brilliant satire of the women-in-prison fare for which New World was becoming famous.
I participated in Caged Heat only on the sense of contributing to its marketing campaign. But Jonathan soon became a familiar sight around our Sunset Strip office suite, wandering the grimy halls with his very tall, very Australian then-wife Evelyn Purcell in tow. You couldn’t miss Jonathan: he of the shaggy hair, friendly grin, and brown-and-white saddle oxfords. But I wouldn’t have guessed that he’d be a future Oscar winner, for directing the 1991 thriller, The Silence of the Lambs.
My one close encounter with Jonathan came when, on the strength of Caged Heat, he was offered by Roger the chance to write and direct a co-production with Twentieth-Century Fox. This was the era of tough-guy movies with outrageous rural heroes. Billy Jack had done well at the box office. So had a vigilante film about a Southern sheriff, Walking Tall, and a rambunctious NASCAR flick, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Roger’s genius was that he always knew how to take what was working elsewhere and repackage it with a little more sex, a little more violence. Jonathan was sent off to do some thinking. Then he met with Roger and the New World story department (Frances Doel and me) over lunch at a local eatery. It was one of the very rare lunches I ever had on Roger’s dime. Jonathan wowed us by holding up a chart in which he compared his new film concept, point by point, to those three low-budget hits. He decreed that his hero, too, needed a sidekick, an unusual weapon, and a trademark mode of transportation. So he proposed that in his Fightin’ Mad, his leading man would ride an old Indian motorcycle, wield a crossbow, and hang out with his toddler son. Most of that ended up changing, but Fighting Mad (without the apostrophe) was eventually produced, with Peter Fonda in the lead.
In his later years, Jonathan paid tribute to his former mentor by casting Roger in virtually every film he made. Sometimes Roger’s roles were miniscule, like that of a wedding guest in Rachel Getting Married. In Silence of the Lambs, Roger has little personal screen time, but—because he’s the movie’s FBI chief—his photo appears on the wall in many scenes. His most sizable role came as a wily businessman in Philadelphia, the powerful 1993 AIDS drama for which Tom Hanks won his first Oscar.
Demme’s affection for his old boss never waned. It was he who called it “the thrill of a lifetime” to present Roger with an honorary Oscar in 1991. Hard to believe that Demme is gone now, while Roger Corman, at 91, keeps on rollin’ along.