Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Now You See Him: The Many Faces of Roger Corman

Not long ago, I found myself watching Ron Howard’s spectacular Apollo 13 on a big-screen TV. As the tense drama unfolded, I spotted several members of the Howard family. These included brother Clint as a quirky engineer in the NASA control room and father Rance as a minister on hand to comfort Jim Lovell’s kinfolk during the patriarch’s perilous return to earth. After a round of tough auditions, Howard gave in to his father’s lobbying efforts and cast his own mother, Jean, in the small but showy role of Lovell’s grandmother, who has absolute faith that “if they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it.” I wasn’t surprised to see all these Howards: though Ron is no pushover when it comes to casting, he enjoys working with members of his family. But I was momentarily surprised at an early scene where, among a congressional delegation touring a NASA facility, I spotted my former boss. Yes, Roger Corman.

 Roger ‘s role, that of a congressman grilling NASA reps about cost containment, is a knowing nod to the Corman reputation as a penny-pincher. The part gave Howard an opportunity to salute the man who’d made him a film director. There’s a long tradition of Corman alumni giving cameo roles to their former boss. It’s a tradition that had previously been sidestepped by Howard, who didn’t think much of Roger’s acting chops. But fellow director Jonathan Demme—who’d used Roger in both The Silence of the Lambs (as the head of the FBI) and Philadelphia (as a crafty businessman) convinced him that Roger’s dramatic skills had vastly improved. Hence his tiny but effective role in what may be Howard’s very best film.

 The first Cormanite to hire his former boss as an actor was Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him in The Godfather Part II as a U.S. Senator on a high-profile panel investigating organized crime.. Coppola had observed that politicians, when in front of news cameras, came off as intelligent and dignified, but also slightly self-conscious. This description fit Roger perfectly.

 Director Joe Dante has joked to me that part of the pleasure of using Corman in a cameo role is paying him the minimum wage allowable by the Screen Actors Guild: “Everybody wanted Roger to work for them for nothing, because we all worked for him for nothing.” When Dante made his own first post-Corman film, the highly successful The Howling ,he asked his old mentor to do a walk-on in a barroom scene. It was Corman’s idea, enthusiastically adopted by Dante, that he spoof his cheapskate image on camera by checking a pay telephone’s coin-return slot for loose change. Most Corman cameos, however, take advantage of his naturally authoritative presence, as Demme did when making him the FBI chief, with his photo beaming down from office walls.

 In 2011, though, a very different Roger appeared in a spoofy TV movie. Here’s how I once described his scene in Sharktopus: “Fade in on a pristine stretch of tropical shore, where we spot an old codger with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest. Sauntering along, he ogles a bikini-clad lovely who has just bent down to dig up a rare coin. When a tentacled sea-beast unexpectedly looms, dragging the shrieking beauty into the surf, he reacts with mild surprise. Then, shrugging off the carnage, he makes a beeline for the coin she’s dropped in the sand. The scene ends on his self-satisfied grin.” Roger had fun playing that greedy beach bum. And on his 96th birthday I wish him lots more fun in the years ahead.







  1. Hiya Bev, I hope everything is good on the west coast. What a delightful essay, it actually lightened my heart. Apollo 13 is our 2nd most favorite/most watched movie (Behind, as you know, Col. Jessup). I knew Ron’s brother was in the movie but had no idea about all the others, PLUS Roger! WoW. And all the info that followed*****How bubbly. I could feeeeeeeeeel so much of you in every word, FAN-tastic. Bob

  2. Wow -- I like being called bubbly. And all those stars! Thanks, Bob!