Return of the Creature Feature Man

updated 09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 01:00AM

HIDEOUS! BLOOD-CHILLING CAMPY! The scene outside Hollywood National Studios in the heart of Los Angeles is worthy of a B-movie poster. SEE a bedraggled line of 50 hopeful young actors grotesquely made up as werewolves and she-wolves! HEAR them bay, growl, shriek and grovel as they try out for the title role in a remake of the 1957 schlock shocker I Was a Teenage Werewolf! MARVEL at the mild-mannered, rotund, cigar-chomping impresario standing nearby whose feverish brain concocted this midday madness!

"Cigars keep werewolves away," quips producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, 74, as he waves his $2.50 Romeo y Julieta and calmly surveys frantic local TV-news crews covering his monster publicity stunt. After a decade out of the low-budget limelight (producing clinkers like Q: The Winged Serpent), the legendary King of the B's is back in biz, this time holding open auditions, hoping to discover the next Michael Landon (who grew fur and fangs in the original Werewolf) and to showcase other new faces as he did with the likes of Linda Evans and Jack Nicholson in their fledgling careers (see page 118).

Whether cruising down Sunset Boulevard in his 1976 red Cadillac Eldorado convertible or firing up another cigar in his modest office near the Warner Bros. lot, Arkoff remains the master showman. As he recounts in his recently published autobiography, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants (Birch Lane Press), Arkoff and his partner at American international Pictures, James Nicholson (who died in 1972), promoted 1959's A Bucket of Blood ("You'll be sick, sick, sick—from LAUGHING!" warned its poster) by urging theater owners to stage blood drives with their local Red Cross chapters.

His office walls are also splashed with colorful history: posters for Day the World Ended ("The screen's new high in NAKED SHRIEKING TERROR!"), Dillinger, Female Jungle, and other memorabilia from his glory days at AIR which churned out more than 500 youth-oriented horror, sci-fi, beach and biker flicks between 1954 and 1980 (when the studio merged with Filmways). Directly behind Arkoff's desk hangs an abstract painting of a herd of horses. "I'll tell you why I bought it," Arkoff says with typical bluntness. "This picture shows that there are more horse's asses than there are horses. And very often I have somebody in here who irks the livin' bejesus out of me. And I say, 'You know, you remind me of this picture.' "

In the twilight world of low-budget filmmaking, Arkoff is renowned for his savvy horsemanship. "Sam used to talk about himself as a poor country boy from [Fort Dodge] Iowa," says Roger (Attack of the Crab Monsters; Little Shop of Horrors) Corman, who directed dozens of AIP films. "He is actually one of the smartest producers I have ever met."

At 35, Arkoff gave up his entertainment-law practice and with Nicholson, a former movie-house manager, invested $3,000 to start their own production and distribution company. "Sam and Jim were among the first to realize that the bulk of the audience were teenagers," says Corman. "In the '50s and '60s, they took a lot of business away from the major studios and were taken seriously."

Well, not always. Exhibitors were underwhelmed by titles such as The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes (which was actually a teakettle that Arkoff had poked with 40 holes). But, oblivious to their detractors, Arkoff and Nicholson Beach Partyed on, grooming such fledgling directors as Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13), Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha) and Oliver Stone (Seizure). Their protégés' subsequent fame eventually rubbed off on Arkoff, who was honored in a 1979 retrospective of his films at New York City's Museum of Modern Art and who, last spring, was invited to give two lectures on filmmaking at Harvard. "An Iowa boy goes to Harvard!" he exclaims.

But fame hasn't gone to his head. "He takes everything with a grain of salt, and he has never taken himself seriously," says his wife, Hilda, 76, a sculptor. "He's unpretentious." Indeed, he and Hilda, who have been married 46 years, still live in the same three-bedroom house in Studio City, Calif., that they built in 1957.

Their daughter, Donna, 40, married to 20th Century Fox studio head Joe Roth, has just produced her first film for MGM, Benny and Joon. Sam and his son, Louis, 42, also a producer, are about to embark on a $20 million remake of Machine Gun Kelly for Columbia. Unlike some friends his age who are now golfing in Palm Springs, Arkoff says he has "a horror of retiring. In my opinion, that's death. So give me these little pictures, big pictures, whatever kind. It keeps the blood coursing through my veins."

Horror? Death? Blood? Sam, have we got a poster for you!

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

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