Roger Corman, independent cinema pioneer and king of B movies, dead at 98

Roger Corman seated surrounded a skull and other horror movie props
Roger Corman directed more than 50 films over his nearly seven-decade career.
(Perry Riddle / Los Angeles Times)
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Roger Corman, the legendary independent Hollywood producer and director whose long string of profitable low-budget movies such as “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “The Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Wild Angels” earned him a reputation as the “King of the B’s,” has died.

Corman, who helped launch the careers of filmmakers, writers and actors in Hollywood and beyond, died Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, according to a statement from Corman’s family. He was 98.

“His films were revolutionary and iconoclastic, and captured the spirit of an age,” Corman’s family said. “When asked how he would like to be remembered, he said, ‘I was a filmmaker, just that.’”


In a nearly seven-decade career, Corman directed more than 50 films, most of which he also produced. In all, he produced more than 350 films, most of them for his own production-distribution companies, New World Pictures and its successor, Concorde-New Horizons.

After founding New World Pictures in 1970, Corman spent the decade producing or overseeing films such as “Private Duty Nurses” and “Eat My Dust!” He also distributed distinguished foreign films in America such as Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” and Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord.”

But many consider Corman’s greatest Hollywood legacy to be his nurturing of young talent and providing in-house training to fledgling filmmakers who went on to become Hollywood heavyweights.

Among those in the impressive roster of Corman “alumni” are Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles and James Cameron.

“I can’t think of anyone who has, quote unquote, discovered more of Hollywood’s most talented filmmakers,” said Gale Anne Hurd, a former Corman assistant who went on to produce films such as “The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “The Abyss.”

As a producer and director, Corman provided opportunities for many top actors early in their careers, including Jack Nicholson, Charles Bronson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Sally Kirkland, Talia Shire, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.


“I was a nobody, and I am eternally grateful Roger Corman stuck with me, because I didn’t have anything else going for me,” Nicholson once said. He made his feature film debut in the “The Cry Baby Killer,” a 1958 crime thriller executive produced by Corman, and appeared frequently in Corman films.

A Stanford University engineering graduate who once worked as a messenger at 20th Century Fox, Corman turned to the sea for his first film as a producer: “Monster From the Ocean Floor.”

The 64-minute black-and-white movie about a one-eyed giant octopus terrorizing Mexican villagers was shot in six days for $12,000, with the beach at Malibu filling in for the Yucatan Peninsula.

“The Fast and the Furious,” a Corman-produced 1955 race car drama shot in nine days on a $50,000 budget, came next and landed him a three-picture distribution deal with a new company that soon became known as American International Pictures.

Corman’s deal with AIP, which became known as the largest and most influential independent company in Hollywood during the 1950s and ‘60s, marked the beginning of a lucrative 15-year, 30-film relationship between Corman and AIP founders James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff.

Corman made his directorial debut with “Five Guns West,” a 1955 Civil War-era western starring John Lund and Dorothy Malone and shot in nine days on a $60,000 budget.


A flurry of similarly low-budget Corman quickies followed — “Swamp Women,” “The Beast with a Million Eyes,” “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “Rock All Night,” “Sorority Girl,” “Teenage Doll” and many, many more.

Indeed, nine Corman-directed productions hit theaters in 1957 alone.

“The whole idea was to tell an interesting, visually entertaining story that would draw young people to drive-ins and hardtop cinemas, and not take yourself too seriously along the way,” Corman wrote in his 1990 autobiography.

As a filmmaker, Corman’s trademark was working fast and cheap. His early films were all made for less than $100,000 and shot in under two weeks.

As producer of “The Fast and the Furious,” Corman talked established actor John Ireland into playing the lead for far below his regular price by letting him co-direct the film, a nine-day shoot with a $50,000 budget.

Corman cut costs by making a deal to get a string of Jaguar racing cars for free, and saved money on a stunt man by racing one of the cars in the key action sequence himself.

To cut transportation costs on distant locations, Corman was known to shoot two movies at once.


And when a studio manager told him that he had a large office set still standing from a just-wrapped picture, Corman said he’d rent the set for two days of shooting and three days of rehearsing — only then did he put his main writer, Charles Griffith, to work on a script.

The result was “The Little Shop of Horrors,” the 1960 black comedy about a dimwitted flower shop apprentice who creates a giant, man-eating plant that talked (“Feed me!”).

Later in the decade, he tapped into the burgeoning counterculture movement with “The Wild Angels,” a 1966 motorcycle gang picture starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, and “The Trip,” an LSD-inspired drama with a screenplay by Nicholson and starring Fonda and Susan Strasberg. Although he dropped acid in preparation for making the film, Corman often described himself as “the squarest guy in a hip group.”

In the mid-1960s, Corman tried working within the major studio system — first at Columbia Pictures, then at 20th Century Fox — but he found the experiences frustrating and slow-paced and returned to AIP. He continued to produce films into his 90s.

“Retire,” he pondered in a 2020 tweet. “I’m too young for that.”

The son of a successful civil engineer and a former legal secretary, Corman was born in Detroit on April 5, 1926. His younger brother, Gene, also became a movie producer. The family moved to Beverly Hills when Corman was a teen.

After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Corman spent a year at Stanford University before volunteering for a Navy officer training program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In 1946, he returned to Stanford for his senior year on the GI Bill and graduated a year later with a degree in industrial engineering.


But by then, his desire to become an engineer had been supplanted by another ambition: to get into motion pictures.

In 1948, after six months of unemployment, Corman got his first break in Hollywood: Through a friend’s father who knew somebody at 20th Century Fox, he landed a $32.50-a-week job as a messenger. Six months later, he was promoted to story analyst at twice the pay.

But he soon became frustrated by the job and left Hollywood for England to study modern English literature on the GI Bill at Oxford University. After completing one term, he moved to Paris.

Returning home after a year abroad, Corman landed a job at a literary agency. He also worked as a grip at a TV station before he sold a script he had co-written to Allied Artists for $3,500. The script became “Highway Dragnet,” a low-budget 1954 crime picture starring Richard Conte and Joan Bennett.

Over the years, many of the directors who got their start working with Corman paid homage to their mentor by having him make cameo appearances in their films.

Among his numerous cameo roles were as a U.S. senator in Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II,” a congressman in Howard’s “Apollo 13” and the head of the FBI in Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.”


But perhaps his most fitting cameo came in Dante’s horror film “The Howling”: a walk-on in a barroom scene in which Corman, poking fun at his legendary penny-pinching, is seen checking a pay telephone’s coin-return slot for loose change.

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic had all but shut down Hollywood, Corman issued a call on social media to A-list filmmakers to make short films — as in two minutes or less — and enter them in “The First (And Hopefully Last) Corman Quarantine Film Festival.” Scores of filmmakers submitted entries.