April 5 is a special day in the film world: the 89th birthday of B-movie maven Roger Corman. Roger is my former boss, as well as the subject of my best-selling independent biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, now in its third edition. Unquestionably Roger has lived long and prospered. This year, though, his birthday celebration may be marred by a messy financial matter. He and wife Julie have just filed a lawsuit, claiming they’ve lost $60 million because of a hedge fund manager’s incompetence.
I just finished reading veteran journalist Steve Weinberg’s fascinating 1989 biography of tycoon-diplomat Armand Hammer. A powerful figure on the world stage, Hammer seemed capable of living forever. (When hauled into court in 1976, charged with a Watergate-era illegal campaign contribution, he looked to be at death’s door. The judge let the sick old man off easy, and he lived to be 92, finally passing away in 1990.) What I’ve gleaned from Weinberg’s pages is how many personality traits Hammer and Corman share. They could almost be twins, separated at birth.
In one regard Hammer had Roger beat. Roger’s considerable accomplishments are all within the entertainment field. He’s told a colleague of mine, “I never want to see another movie. But it’s the only thing I know how to do.” Hammer, by contrast, seemed to succeed at whatever he chose. As an American capitalist in the early days of the Soviet Union, he made money in phosphate, and in the manufacture of pencils. Later he sold art and liquor, then discovered the oil business, founding Occidental Petroleum. Ultimately he became so rich that he could indulge in whims like cattle-breeding and Arabian horses. He even bought the Arm and Hammer Baking Soda Company, so that the Wall Street Journal could jest, “Armand Hammer and Arm and Hammer Finally Arm in Arm.”
It sounds like Roger to me when Weinberg says, “For Hammer . . . wealth and adulation seemed to substitute for friendship.” The hirings and firings that went on within Hammer’s innner circle seem familiar too: in Corman’s world I’ve also seen protégés suddenly banished, and heirs apparent announced one day, then demoted the next. Roger has no board of directors whom he needs to keep in line by requiring that they all file unsigned letters of resignation. But there’s no question that Roger, like Hammer, can be intimidating to underlings. When Michael Amato was head of marketing at Roger’s Concorde-New Horizons, he was too much in awe of his boss to disagree about anything significant. Whenever business problems arose, Amato would march into Corman’s office, intent on expressing his views. But inevitably he would be won over to Corman’s own perspective. So the meeting would end with his complete capitulation: “Whatever you say. I’ll work all night on this, get it done for tomorrow.”
A man who loved publicity, Hammer commissioned over the course of his lifetime four flattering books about himself. Predictably, he ignored Weinberg’s request that he cooperate on a wholly objective account of his long, eventful career. Roger has published his own ghost-written autobiography, and I know from experience that he encourages outside writers to chronicle his life only when he’s allowed to pass judgment on everything that’s said about him. If he doesn’t get final cut, watch out!
Inevitably Hammer too aspired to move into the movie biz. But his documentaries, like 1984’s Backstage at the Kirov, can hardly compete with Roger’s Poe cycle. Still, Hollywood is not without a Hammer: his great-grandson Armie is now accumulating an impressive list of leading-man credits.
Happy birthday, Roger! And many happy returns. . . .
Biographer and journalist Steve Weinberg will appear on a panel I’m moderating, “The Biographer’s Voice,” at the sixth annual conference of BIO, the Biographers International Organization. It takes place on June 6, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The public is most welcome!