I must admit that I is not an easy letter when you’re in the throes of an A to Z Challenge. It’s not simple to think of Roger Corman people whose names begin with the ninth letter of the alphabet. One exception is Ib Melchior, whose short story, “The Racer,” was the basis for the New World cult classic, Death Race 2000. To hear Roger tell it these days, he himself came up with the wild idea of the futuristic cross-country road race in which drivers score points by running down pedestrians. Sorry, Roger – that detail was at the heart of Melchior’s story. True, “The Racer” is stilted and ultimately sentimental. It is not nearly so memorable as the darkly funny film scripted by Chuck Griffith and brilliantly directed by Paul Bartel. But to give credit where credit’s due, Melchior’s outrageous idea started the whole thing.
Here’s what I really want to talk about: two behind-the-scenes people who owe much to Roger Corman. In 1980 Clark Henderson, a UCLA film student with some short films to his credit, was approached by a Corman minion who offered a job interview. Two days later, Clark was a production assistant in charge of craft service, which means he provided the bagels and other tasty treats arrayed on the snack table during the filming of Battle Beyond the Stars. Because he was around during the rare off-days at Corman's Venice, California studio, he saw something out of the ordinary: Roger walking the film’s fledgling director through his paces, blocking out the shots for the next day of shooting. Normally, Roger didn’t interfere with the work of his young directors. He was generally adept at figuring out who was ready to shoot a film that would come in on time and on budget. But in the case of Battle Beyond the Stars, which because of its special effects requirements posed huge logistical challenges, Roger miscalculated. Which is why he was gently, graciously, coming to the rescue of a young man who was in ‘way over his head.
Clark, with his solid grasp of technical filmmaking, soon rose through the ranks at New World. Ultimately Roger sent him to oversee a raft of action films being shot in the Philippines, many of them directed by the irrepressible Cirio Santiago. Cirio’s associate producer was a smart cookie named Isabel. Soon she and Clark were an item. After Clark returned to the U.S., Roger played cupid by signing the documents that helped Isabel enter the country. He found her a job in his accounting department, but eventually the two were told that they’d better get married, or else Roger’s company might be in trouble with immigration authorities. (Clark notes that Roger quickly adored Isabel: “She was like the accounting maven. She’d always catch people in fraudulent shit, and he loved her for that.”)
The Hendersons don’t sugarcoat their memories of working for Roger. Both recall that when things got tough on the set he could be paranoid (“What kind of stupid idea is this? This is sabotage! They’re trying to get me!”), and subject to temper tantrums. They’ve seen him throw things – even throw punches – and have shaken their heads at his bursts of rampant homophobia. But all that was a long time ago. Both Isabel and Clark, now a vice-president of Technicolor Creative Services in New York City, agree that Roger Corman has changed their lives for the better.