Back when the world was young (okay, it was 1968) a young actress named Talia Coppola played the “1st girlfriend” in The Wild Racers, a low-budget race car drama directed by Roger Corman’s veteran art director, Daniel Haller. The film starred familiar B-movie names -- Fabian, Mimsy Farmer, Dick Miller – and its plot, as well as its title, sounded a lot like The Young Racers. When Roger Corman had directed and produced that earlier Grand Prix flick in Europe in 1963, his assistant Francis Ford Coppola had gone along as a very novice sound man. Talia of course is Francis’s little sister, and in 1972 her role as The Godfather’s Connie Corleone Rizzi would make her a bankable Hollywood star. But in 1968 she, like brother Francis, was just getting started.
In 1969, three years before The Godfather, Talia was directed by Roger Corman himself in the film that acrimoniously ended his long relationship with American International Pictures. It was an oddity called Gas-s-s-s! Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It, and it reflected Roger’s countercultural impulses in that turbulent era. The premise of Gas-s-s-s! is that a mysterious air-borne poison has killed off everyone in the United States over the age of twenty-five. Corman’s youthful characters form into family units and begin a strange odyssey through the American Southwest. Though the cast included, along with Talia, such rising stars as Ben Vereen, Cindy Williams, and Bud Cort, no one’s career was much advanced by this box office flop.
Around the time she was appearing in Gas-s-s-s!, Talia worked behind the scenes in other Corman films, and dated Roger briefly. She was one of many bright young women over the years who have benefitted from on-the-job training in a Corman company. As she told People magazine in 1980, Roger’s assistants typically begin by answering the telephone, and two weeks later progress to reading scripts and scouting for locations: “It beats hell out of going to the Yale School of Drama.”
Though I’m sure Talia did well in the role of what Roger has always liked to call his “ace assistant,” her success in the Godfather films, and as Adrian in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise, ensured that she would have no further need to sit behind a desk in a Corman office. Ironically, it was in a Corman office that I met her. Circa 1994, she’d approached Roger with a screenplay for an erotic thriller called One Night Stand. Her plan was to make this her directing debut, and so we spent many hours beefing up the script. Alida Camp, the film’s producer, later told me that Roger had always thought highly of Shire. For that reason, said Camp, “he was willing to let her have a lot of freedom. And he put more money into her movie also. Well, it ended up being more money than he wanted to put in.” The upshot was that Roger abruptly slashed several hundred thousand dollars from the budget, but Shire refused to believe he was serious. She ended up owing him money, and the once-cordial relationship soured.
Sadly, during the script development phase of One Night Stand, Talia’s husband Jack Schwartzman passed away, following a long illness. The couple had two sons together, and both of them have followed their mother into the acting profession. Jason Schwartzman, a favorite of Wes Anderson, has enlivened everything from Rushmore to Moonrise Kingdom. So the Coppola dynasty continues.