Circa 1954, when he first started producing and directing movies, Roger Corman realized that he was lacking in a few important departments. He had energy, he had talent, but he didn’t have a ready source of funding. Nor did he have a large-scale distribution network. That’s why he turned to the American Releasing Corporation, which soon changed its name to American International Pictures. AIP, taking advantage of a Supreme Court anti-trust ruling that stripped the big Hollywood studios of their power over motion picture theatre chains, had started supplying movies to drive-ins and smaller theatres. AIP films were made fast and cheap, and were geared to teenage audiences. Joe Dante has clarified for me the key to AIP’s success: “The whole thrust of these cheap movies was that they were movies your parents wouldn’t want you to see.”
End of history lesson. Anyway, the founders of AIP were a film exhibitor, James Nicholson, and an entertainment lawyer, Samuel Z. Arkoff. Of the two, Roger Corman always figured that Jim Nicholson was the more creative, the more attuned to cinema aesthetics. But, at age 56, Jim was becoming increasingly conservative at the same time that Roger, ten years younger, was flirting with Sixties-style radicalism. Their conflict came to a head when Roger shot a film exploring the pleasures and pains of LSD. Stepping in, Nicholson insisted on adding to The Trip an opening disclaimer that warned audiences about the dangers of drug use. Nicholson also re-edited the final shot of the film, putting a jagged crack over the image of Fonda’s face, thus undoing Corman’s own non-judgmental ending by suggesting a shattered life. Roger was furious. Soon, with the production of Gas-s-s-s! (1970), his relationship with his longtime backers at American International Pictures would be strained beyond repair.
The great irony is that the screenplay credit for The Trip went to another Nicholson, the irrepressible Jack. Years later, Jack Nicholson told me that “my first meeting with Roger Corman was in Jeff Corey’s acting class, in which we were both very shy and stumbling neophytes. He was serious, I was serious, and we survived.” His first-ever film, at age 21, was The Cry Baby Killer, which Roger produced but did not direct. At least one early Cormanite, feeling Jack was handicapped by an unfortunate speaking voice, urged him to quit acting and go into real estate. Nonetheless, he was soon a Corman regular. Most famously he played the masochist at the dentist’s office in Little Shop of Horrors. But in several of Roger’s costume dramas, he was the earnest (and skinny) young juvenile. Soon after writing The Trip, in which Peter Fonda survives a series of hallucinogenic fantasy sequences, Jack accepted a featured role in Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s landmark Sixties sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll flick, Easy Rider . . . and a star was born.
The climax of Alex Stapleton’s recent documentary, Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, is an interview with Jack Nicholson. Suddenly, he dissolves into tears as he remembers the way Roger Corman jumpstarted his unlikely – and very brilliant – career.