He gave us teenage werewolves and blacula. Squeaky-clean beach-blanket high jinks and not-so-innocent reform-school girls. Hot-rod gangs and towns that dreaded sundown. Eighty-three-year-old Samuel Z. Arkoff—the cigar-chomping low-budget-movie mogul who was the King of the Drive-In—died in Burbank, Calif., this fall of natural causes, leaving behind a legacy as storied as Hollywood pioneers Louis B. Mayer’s and Jack Warner’s…and far more colorful.
Born the son of Russian immigrants in Iowa, Arkoff wrote in his 1992 memoir, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants, that he was dazzled by Hollywood from the beginning. At age 15, he visited an aunt in Chicago, where he picked up his first copy of Variety. Mesmerized by the rat-a-tat dealmaking described in its pages, Arkoff, when he returned home, paid the owner of a local pool hall 15 cents a week to order the trade rag for him.
After World War II, which he spent in the Azores as a cryptographer, having flunked the physical due to his 230-pound girth and staggeringly high blood pressure, Arkoff moved to Los Angeles. In 1954, he and partner James H. Nicholson started the studio that came to be known as American International Pictures with $3,000. With the rise of television’s popularity and the boom of a new demographic known as the teenager, Arkoff targeted the underserved youth market and simultaneously lured older audiences away from the small screen by spackling spectacular cheese on the big one.
The company’s very first release was a hit—a drag-racing cheapie titled The Fast and the Furious, produced by a newcomer named Roger Corman whose sole credit was The Monster From the Ocean Floor. ”They were just getting into the game, so they were willing to experiment on an audacious idea,” recalls Corman, who wound up making 50 movies for Arkoff. ”Hollywood wasn’t making films for the youth culture yet, but AIP knew the only way in was to make movies that appealed to teens. By the time the studios realized what they were missing, Sam already had the jump on them.”
Dismissed by critics, AIP’s early films—running the tawdry and titillating schlock gamut from Attack of the Puppet People to She-Gods of Shark Reef—cost almost nothing to make, and in return raked in box office loot hand over fist. But if the films themselves weren’t particularly memorable, Arkoff’s eye for young talent was peerless. Unable to afford big stars for his low-rent flicks, Arkoff minted his own luminaries. And the laundry list of actors who launched their careers at AIP is a Hollywood Who’s Who: 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf spawned Michael Landon; 1958’s Machine Gun Kelly starred a young Charles Bronson; a wet-behind-the-ears Method actor named Jack Nicholson turned up in 1963’s The Raven and 1967’s Hell’s Angels on Wheels. ”AIP was like a movie-star way station,” says Don Johnson, who costarred with fellow rookie Nick Nolte in 1975’s Return to Macon County. ”It was a very special group of people who went in through his doors. None of us were studio material back then, and Sam created an environment where hungry and dedicated young artists could work and make films. That doesn’t really exist today.”
Greenhorn directors were also given early breaks at AIP that they wouldn’t have been granted by the majors: Francis Ford Coppola made 1963’s Dementia 13; Martin Scorsese helmed 1972’s Boxcar Bertha; and Woody Allen sent up Japanese spy flicks with 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Says Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Milius, who started out as a story reader in AIP’s shabby Wilshire Boulevard offices and made his directorial debut there with Dillinger, “There’s an old Marines saying: ‘We’ve been doing so much with so little for so long, we can do anything with nothing forever.’ Well, that was Sam Arkoff in a nutshell.”