Gee whiz! There are lots of G’s to choose from in the Corman world, including the bodacious Pam Grier and Roger’s brother Gene. But I have to go with a personal favorite of mine, a wonderfully free spirit named Charles B. Griffith. I first got to know Chuck at New World Pictures, at the time of the writing of Death Race 2000. Decades later, while researching my biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches and Driller Killers, I entered into a long email conversation with Chuck, who seemed happy to answer my questions and air his gripes about his (and my) former boss. Needless to say, Chuck’s history with Roger Corman stretches back to the beginning of Roger’s filmmaking career. And some of Roger’s biggest early hits bear Chuck’s fingerprints.
Chuck came from a family of vaudevillians, which perhaps helped to make him extremely adaptable. (A bit of trivia: his mother and grandmother created and starred in a legendary radio serial, Myrt and Marge, about two Broadway chorus girls. Their full names on the show were Myrtle Spear and Marjorie Minter: this was an early example of product placement, because the sponsor was Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum. Get it?) Chuck’s first Roger Corman credit was the screenplay for Gunslinger (1956), after which he cranked out such gems as Naked Paradise, Attack of the Crab Monster, and the delightfully offbeat Not of this Earth, about an alien invader who fries people with his eyes. In the dead of winter, 1959, the Corman entourage traveled to the Black Hills of South Dakota to shoot two back-to-back cheapies. For this project, Chuck cranked out a World War II drama, Ski Troop Attack, as well as a monster flick, Beast from Haunted Cave. As he told me, Roger’s instructions for the latter were “Give me Naked Paradise at a gold mine . . . with a blizzard instead of a hurricane. Oh, and add a monster.” When I wrote to him to confirm the film’s exact title (was it perhaps The Beast from the Haunted Cave?), he puckishly answered that the shorter version was indeed correct: the film was made so cheaply that no one could afford two definite articles.
Chuck had a waspish sense of humor, used to good effect in horror comedies, beginning with 1959’s A Bucket of Blood. Roger at first resisted Chuck’s darkly funny story of a nebbish who finds recognition in hip art circles after exhibiting his plaster-covered murder victims as sculpture, but was persuaded by Chuck that “since you’re going to make it in five days for $35,000, you can’t lose.” When Roger later discovered he could have a weekend’s use of some standing sets at Chaplin Studios, he put Chuck to work on the project that became A Little Shop of Horrors. Famously this story of a man-eating plant was shot in two days and two nights for a mere $27,000, but – thanks to its bizarre premise and wacky performances by the young Jack Nicholson, among others – it lives on in movie history. (Grandma Myrt steppped in to play hero Seymour’s decrepit mother.)
Not only did Chuck concoct the story: he also played the bit part of a thief and voiced Audrey Junior’s famous “FEEEED ME.” In addition, he and castmate Mel Welles (who played shop-owner Gravis Mushnik) supervised two nights of location shooting on L.A.’s Skid Row. Was Roger grateful? In 1982, when the low-rent movie was transformed by Howard Ashman and Allan Menken into a hit off-Broadway musical, did Chuck get a piece of the action? That’s a story for another day.