Friday, December 25, 2015

Roger Corman and the Gift of Giving

‘Tis the season for gift-giving. Most of us who’ve had the good fortune to work for Roger Corman realize we were given a significant gift. Not a monetary gift, to be sure. Our salaries tended to be so low that they could hardly be considered a living wage. And once Roger discovered that eager young filmmaking hopefuls would work for free, he was quick to embrace the Hollywood tradition of unpaid internships. Years ago, writer-director Howard R. Cohen told Roger that no one could live on the salaries he offered. Roger, though, had a quick response: “I get the money; you get the career.”

At this time of merry-making, it’s appropriate to pass along the story of the Christmas parties at Concorde-New Horizons. Yes, we normally had a little party, downstairs in the cramped first-floor lobby of our shabby Brentwood office building. We also each received what I must admit was a fairly generous bonus check. One year, though, profits were off. And so Roger democratically offered us a choice: the party or the bonus. Guess what we all chose? We had certainly learned from our boss that money comes first. Anyway, the party was really nothing special. Nor did it require much expenditure on Roger’s own part. Possibly Roger himself sprang for a few bottles of wine, or some paper plates. And wife Julie contributed homemade Irish soda bread. Lavish it was not! 

But let me move beyond Christmas to mention some of the gifts Roger gave to his underlings. He gave, above all, the gift of opportunity. Sometimes this was a mixed blessing. While making a film you could be sent to Peru, to be hassled by the Shining Path guerrillas. Or travel to Bulgaria or Moscow or the Philippines, where fledgling director Carl Franklin was drugged with an animal tranquilizer in a Manila nightspot, probably by someone planning to rob him. Possibly it was an attempt at something more sinister, like a kidnapping by a revolutionary group. Happily Carl survived, and no one tried asking Roger to fork over a million-dollar ransom. It’s a good bet he might have said, “A million dollars? I could do six films for that!” When we traveled on Roger’s dime, a dime was pretty much all he spent.

Still, no one can deny that Roger made things happen. At New World Pictures, Gale Anne Hurd—a  well-educated Corman assistant with no practical filmmaking background—took her first steps toward becoming a big-league producer. James Cameron wandered onto the set of Battle Beyond the Stars with an idea of how to build a front-projection camera rig for inexpensive special effects shots. Though this wasn’t a success, he started crafting spaceship models, and then segued into becoming the film’s art director, devising sets out of little more than hot glue, gaffer’s tape, spraypaint, and the styrofoam McDonald’s hamburger boxes with which he lined the interior walls of the main spacecraft. On his next film for Roger, Galaxy of Terror, Jim directed second unit. Onward and upward!

Then there was a young actress, Jeanne Bell. A petite but curvaceous former Playboy playmate, she was cast as the lead in Roger’s TNT Jackson when another actress showed up pregnant. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, she asked me how she should spell her first name. (She was born Mary Ann.)  In 1974 she rated a photo in Time  magazine for romancing Richard Burton on the set of The Klansman. Elizabeth Taylor was not amused. But such is Hollywood, where opportunities abound for moving up in the world—even if you start with Roger Corman.  

Dedicated to Errol Thomas, self-described Roger Corman fiend, who wanted more about Jeanne (or sometimes Jeannie) Bell.  

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