NATIONAL NEWS

Roger Corman, the low-budget movie king behind ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ dies at 98

May 12, 2024, 11:23 AM

Roger Corman is pictured in Hollywood in 2007. Roger Corman, a colorful producer and director whose...

Roger Corman is pictured in Hollywood in 2007. Roger Corman, a colorful producer and director whose low-budget movies – including the original “Little Shop of Horrors” – helped establish major Hollywood talents like Jack Nicholson and directors James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, has died. He was 98. (Mark Mainz, Getty Images)

(Mark Mainz, Getty Images)

(CNN) Roger Corman, a colorful producer and director whose low-budget movies – including the original “Little Shop of Horrors” – helped establish major Hollywood talents like Jack Nicholson and directors James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, has died. He was 98.

Corman died on May 9 at his home in Santa Monica “surrounded by his family,” his wife Julie and daughters Mary and Catherine wrote in a statement posted to his verified Instagram page on Saturday.

“He was generous, open-hearted and kind to all those who knew him. A devoted and selfless father, he was deeply loved by his daughters,” the statement read. “His films were revolutionary and iconoclastic, and captured the spirit of an age.”

Dubbed the King of the B Movies and the Pope of Pop Cinema (also the title of a documentary devoted to his career), Corman’s brand of unabashed exploitation fare flourished in the 1950s and ‘60s. That included a series of films adapting the works of Edgar Allan Poe, most of them starring Vincent Price, such as “House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Corman capitalized on the fact the Poe stories were in the public domain, a sign of his scrappy approach to filmmaking.

Roger Corman (center) and actor Ray Milland (left) on the set of ‘X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes’ in 1963. (Hulton Archive, Getty Images)

Those movies also included “The Raven,” featuring a young Nicholson, who also played the odd dental patient in the 1960 movie “The Little Shop of Horrors,” which was later turned into a musical and remade for the screen.

That film followed a string of movies in the 1950s with titles like “The Beast with a Million Eyes” and “It Conquered the World.” Most were shot in a matter of days on relatively minimal budgets, even for the time.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Corman’s family moved to California, where he developed his love for the movies. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he earned an engineering degree from Stanford University, getting a job at one of the Hollywood studios before embarking on his independent producing career.

Seeking out young filmmakers (primarily because they were inexpensive), Corman employed future heavyweight directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Scorsese.

Legendary director and “Happy Days” star Ron Howard remembered Corman as a “great movie maker and mentor” in a statement posted to his X page on Saturday.

“When I was 23 he gave me my 1st shot at directing. He launched many careers & quietly lead our industry in important ways,” he wrote. “He remained sharp, interested and active even at 98. Grateful to have known him.”

In 1970, Corman formed New World Pictures, continuing to produce and distribute low-budget movies while also serving as the US distributor of prestigious foreign films, including projects from acclaimed European directors Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini.

Corman directed his last movie, “Frankenstein Unbound,” in 1990. A few years later, he produced a film made famous by the fact it was never actually released into theaters: “Fantastic Four,” based on the Marvel Comics super-team, long before Marvel conquered the box office. The project was shot in just three weeks, primarily because the complicated rights to such an adaptation would soon expire. In subsequent years, it became a cult item among the comic-book faithful.

Corman’s wide array of connections and admirers throughout Hollywood also led to him being cast in small roles in dozens of movies, including “The Godfather Part II,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and one of the “Scream” sequels.

The recipient of an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 2009, Corman’s autobiography was titled “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.”

“I’ll never work for anybody again who knows as much about movies as Roger,” Joe Dante, the director of “Gremlins,” said at an October 2023 tribute to Corman in Santa Monica, adding that those who cut their teeth under Corman’s guidance feel “the best years of our creative lives were spent with someone who knew more than we did.”

In a 2022 interview with Paste magazine, Corman expressed pride in the many filmmakers who received early breaks from him, saying, “I’m delighted to see that so many of the men and women who started with me have gone on to such big successes. I’m on friendly terms with all of them, and I frankly just think it’s wonderful.”

In an email to CNN, Corman’s wife Julie described her husband as being “as passionate about boosting the careers of others as he was about his own career.”

“He thought to shoot on the streets when no one was doing it. He thought to put Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’ in drive-ins when no one else would have,” she wrote. “When I asked him how he wanted to be remembered he said, ‘I was a filmmaker, just that.’”

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Roger Corman, the low-budget movie king behind ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ dies at 98