10 icons who owe their careers to Roger Corman

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Those who ply their trade exclusively in the realm of low-budget genre cinema rarely go down in history as iconic figures in cinema, but Roger Corman was an entity unto himself.

The writer, director, and producer churned out hundreds upon hundreds of credits during his extensive and exhaustive stint in Hollywood, where he gradually evolved from becoming the biggest name in exploitation fare to a living legend who left a titanic legacy behind.

Fully earning his name as ‘The Spiritual Godfather of New Hollywood‘, Corman never met a movie he didn’t think he could make for a budget that many filmmakers would actively scoff at, while he may well have possessed the greatest eye for talent ever.

The list of names discovered, uncovered, and set on the path to greatness by Corman carries well beyond the following ten, which is illustrative of just how heavily the last 60 years of celluloid have been marked by his monolithic fingerprints.

The heavy influence of Roger Corman:

10. Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper was already an experienced performer who’d worked on Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in his early years, but he’d been left on the outside looking in before Corman helped usher in cinema’s counterculture era.

Two years before Easy Rider was released, and before it had even been written, Corman produced and directed The Trip. Scripted by Jack Nicholson, the film starred Hopper and Henry Fonda, with the story revolving around the latter’s psychedelic experiences following his first time experimenting with LSD.

There’s a straight line to be drawn between the two movies, with Easy Rider reigniting Hopper’s career and positioning him as one of the on-screen faces of the ‘New Hollywood’ movement, and it’s essentially a spiritual sequel to The Trip in every way.

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9. Janusz Kamiński

Long before he became one of Steven Spielberg‘s most vaunted collaborators, Janusz Kamiński was the second unit director on sci-fi horror Lords of the Deep and the cinematographer of genre bedfellow The Terror Within II, both of which were produced by Corman.

Kamiński would win an Academy Award for his first partnership with Spielberg on Schindler’s List, which was released just four years after he served his apprenticeship under the king of B-tier cinema, and he’d scoop a second Oscar for lensing Saving Private Ryan as the professional bromance blossomed.

He’s made 19 features with Spielberg and worked with Cameron Crowe, James L. Brooks, and Julian Schnabel, among others, but like so many before him, Kamiński got his foot in the door by sitting under Corman’s invaluable learning tree.

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8. Peter Bogdanovich

One of the most important and influential figures in the ‘New Hollywood’ era, Peter Bogdanovich has been named as a key inspiration by a glut of top-tier filmmakers ranging from David Fincher and Edgar Wright to Guillermo del Toro and the Safdie brothers.

He directed 17 features, including The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, but even though he retained plenty of creative freedom by writing, editing helming, and producing his feature-length debut Targets in 1968, it only happened because Corman gave him the job.

Targets star Boris Karloff owed Corman two days of work per his contract, with the producer informing Bogdanovich that he could make whatever he wanted on the provision he used the iconic Frankenstein actor for those two days and came in under budget. He did, and just like that, he was off to the races.

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7. Sylvester Stallone

Long before Rocky turned him from a relative unknown into an international superstar, Sylvester Stallone soaked up as much knowledge as he could knowing full well there weren’t many better in the industry to pick it up from than Corman.

Lending support in biographical crime thriller Capone and sci-fi actioner Death Race 2000, Stallone described his brief Corman era as “the only unofficial college of the arts where you got to learn filmmaking for free by a master”.

It may have been the ‘Italian Stallion’ that gave the star his big break, but Stallone said of his Corman flicks that “if I hadn’t done those parts I probably wouldn’t be here today,” and he’s fast closing in on half a century as one of the most famous faces in Hollywood.

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6. Ron Howard

It was Corman who ultimately influenced Ron Howard when he was torn between continuing his acting career or abandoning it entirely in favour of focusing on directing full-time, a decision he hasn’t regretted once since first taking the plunge.

Corman handed the first-time filmmaker the reins on 1977’s Grand Theft Auto and he’s never looked back, with the Academy Award winner not once forgetting the seismic impact the prolific producer had when he was caught at a professional crossroads.

Howard has barely acted since, and the trajectory of his career over the last 40 years was born directly from Corman once again being willing to take a chance on an unproven, untried, and untested upstart and placing them in charge of their debut feature.

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5. Robert De Niro

A huge part of Corman’s enduring legend will be his reputation for being such an innate judge of talent, something that wasn’t lost on Robert De Niro when he paid tribute to how the producer “started many of us over the years.”

Even though he’d notched a handful of feature credits and worked with Brian De Palma twice before he even came into Corman’s orbit, the future legend of the silver screen remained eternally thankful to the man who cast him in a major supporting role in 1970’s Bloody Mama.

Directed and produced by Corman, the exploitation crime flick was the first gangster movie De Niro ever appeared in, which would soon go on to become a habit across an illustrious career after The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, Casino, and Heat kept adding more and more classic notches to his belt.

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4. James Cameron

Before he’d even made his directorial debut on Piranha II: The Spawning, and prior to his lifelong obsession with smash-hit sci-fi across the Terminator, Alien, and Avatar franchises, James Cameron was working behind the scenes in that very arena for Corman.

Hired by New World Pictures at the very beginning of his career, the future botherer of every existing box office record worked in a number of capacities including photographer, miniature designer, art director, matte artist, and visual effects photographer on Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror.

The filmmaker’s vivid imagination and eye for detail has been prevalent in all of his work since he first graduated to wielding the megaphone, which can all be traced to Corman drafting him in and encouraging the young Cameron’s creativity.

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3. Francis Ford Coppola

One of the greatest and most daring directors in history who knows a thing or two about risking it all in the name of executing his vision, Francis Ford Coppola made a relatively inauspicious start behind the camera in black-and-white horror Dementia 13.

He was only 24 years old when his first film was released, but when Corman decided somebody was ready to make the jump into directing, it didn’t matter what their age was. Having been part of the sound team on the producer’s The Young Racers, he was handpicked to take the next step on his filmmaking odyssey.

From there, Coppola would go on to embark on a legendary career that’s thrown up several of the greatest features Hollywood has ever made, with Corman the first one to take a chance on the young upstart and set them loose on cinema.

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2. Martin Scorsese

As an avid cinephile, Martin Scorsese was already fully aware of who Corman was before they first crossed paths, and it was an opportunity he welcomed when the producer into the fold to direct his second feature Boxcar Bertha.

Scorsese had also lent his editing expertise to several Corman-backed pictures including Unholy Rollers, and watching the way he exuded such control and authority over the movies carrying his name inspired the aspiring auteur to mount his own production derived entirely from his own idea.

The end result was Mean Streets, and out of respect Scorsese approached Corman to see if he would be interested in backing the project. When he was informed that “if you could swing and make the characters Black I’ll give you a couple hundred thousand dollars and you can shoot it in New York,” he politely declined in what was definitely the right call.

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1. Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson and Roger Corman were virtually inseparable for the first decade of the former’s career, with the dynamic duo partnering up for a slew of projects that covered exactly as many genre bases as one would expect from the latter.

The soon-to-be superstar actor made his feature debut in the Corman-produced teen thriller The Crybaby Killer, and befitting his status as a premiere talent-spotter, he’d go on to make Nicholson a regular fixture of his on-screen repertory.

Corman directed Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven, The Terror, and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, earning the utmost respect along the way. The three-time Oscar winner called him “my main connect” and “my lifeblood to whatever I thought I was going to be and as a person,” while he went on to become his most famous protégé.

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