Samuel Z. (for Zachary) Arkoff has been accused of building his movie empire on “trash,” “garbage” and “barbarity.” However justified the charges might be, they have not cost him one dime at the box office. Since Arkoff teamed up in 1954 with the late James Nicholson, a theater owner, to launch American International Pictures, his studio has forged a trail of blood, bikes and bikinis in more than 500 feature films. They range from Panic in the Year Zero, The Wild Angels and Beach Blanket Bingo to this year’s Amityville Horror and Meteor, and they make Arkoff, at 61, Hollywood’s longest reigning movie mogul.
The son of a Russian-born Jewish immigrant, he grew up in Fort Dodge, Iowa, served in the Air Force and earned a law degree at Loyola University in L.A. (“I’m a Jewish Jesuit”). Arkoff lives with his wife, Hilda, in the four-bedroom house they bought in 1956 in Studio City (“the poor man’s Beverly Hills”). His daughter, Donna, 27, and son, Louis, 29, who recently left AIP to found his own company, live nearby. Arkoff drives a Cadillac convertible, loves to read scripts while sitting in a floating chair in his swimming pool, and on weekends previews films at home with his family and their young friends. Last summer New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the American Film Institute in Washington celebrated AlP’s silver anniversary. Still savoring the triumph of cinematic respectability along with his ever-present cigar, Arkoff reminisced with Lois Armstrong of PEOPLE.
Do you resent being called “The Schlockmeister of Wilshire Boulevard”?
“Schlock” bothers me. It’s an offensive word that means the merchandise is cheap. It’s unfair and utter nonsense.
And “The Emperor of Exploitation”?
People think of “exploitation” as an evil word, but it’s not. It just means taking a product and building it up.
How about “King of the ‘B’ movies”?
Now that I don’t resent. “B” stood for low-budget. A lot of classics were made as “B’s,” like early Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson movies. They were turned out in a hurry. It’s a credit to us, in a sense; we made pictures the public liked, for a price.
A lot of your movies for the young, drive-in audience were called tawdry and immoral. Do you agree?
No, I don’t. Take the beach pictures of the ’60s. We never had anybody smoking cigarettes, let alone stronger stuff. There was no fornicating. But the kids didn’t want “Andy Hardy” anymore. They didn’t want to be lectured to on the screen. That’s the key nobody else saw.
And that’s when the beach party pictures came along?
Yes, but they weren’t about surfing; that was just a nice background. They were about kids. There were no adults of any consequence and no parents ever. Adults were just humorous stick figures like Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles and Robert Cummings.
Where did you find your young stars?
They were here all the time, but nobody was giving them anything. Michael Landon was an aspiring kid four years out of high school when we did I Was a Teenage Werewolf. We offered him a multi-picture deal, but he turned it down. Jack Nicholson must have been in six or eight of our pictures. About 1965 he even wrote the script for The Trip, the first movie about LSD. It starred three other unknowns, all of whom had done other pictures for us: Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper.
What were Fonda and Dern like?
I had a very friendly, sometimes charged relationship with Peter. We were very close. Bruce was in three or four motorcycle pictures and also The Man with Two Heads. He didn’t play the two heads—he played the scientist. He was an obliging actor and still is.
When did Charles Bronson get his break?
I think Machine Gun Kelly was the watershed picture for him. I thought he had a terrific face. My wife met him, and she thought he was a nice Jewish boy from New York and very attractive. That rather dumbfounded me, frankly.
Woody had been a successful TV writer and nightclub comic, but he was still pretty much unknown in movies. It was his idea to take this Japanese detective movie and dub in funny dialogue which he improvised on the spot. All Woody ate while making What’s Up Tiger Lily? was Hershey bars and nuts. The film was ahead of its time. It came out in 1966 and took about a decade to recoup the $300,000-400,000 it cost.
Were your young stars temperamental?
Not many of the stars were gigantic enough then to give you any problem. When they’re smaller, you just don’t tolerate it. The boneyards are strewn with actors who tried to act big before they were big.
Do big stars really make a picture?
Sometimes names get in the way. They not only make the picture vastly more expensive, but they call for rewrites to build up their part. A lot of basically honest pictures don’t have a star. Take American Graffiti, or Jaws—the shark was the star of Jaws. With a youth picture, it’s rare you find a star. Travolta with Saturday Night Fever was an exception. He had the chemistry.
“B” movie companies were folding in the ’50s. Why did AlP take off?
We realized the older people were sitting at home watching television, but the young people had certain primeval instincts—they were trying to get out of the house, get away from adults. They couldn’t identify with a Clark Gable or Gary Cooper at age 59. So instead of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, we gave them Hot Rod Girl and The Day the World Ended and The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes.
What about drugs?
Why did The Trip succeed when all the other drug pictures failed? Because most of them had a moral lesson: If you take drugs, you’re gonna suffer, suffer, suffer. The Trip was simply an experience that Peter Fonda went through. We didn’t approve. We didn’t disapprove. We simply told a story.
Are there too few picture buffs running the business today?
There is an increasing tendency to let tax experts and other money men lead the way. That’s what’s so ironic. The people who should be minding the store aren’t. When director Michael Cimino’s new Western, Heaven’s Gate, budgeted at $12 million—which is a damn big budget—goes over $30 million before United Artists takes action and sends somebody out to sign the checks, there is a sort of madness afoot. Look, when the flypaper no longer sticks, the flies get bold. That’s fly nature.
Are promotion and publicity what they used to be?
There was more razzmatazz in the old days. We went out and did stunts. In 1957 we hired a werewolf to cruise around town in a car. We had airplanes skywriting and disc jockeys giving away free tickets. We used to send our monsters to supermarkets, high school proms and football games. That was razzle-dazzle. Of course, we still do stunts. For Love at First Bite we had George Hamilton drive up in a hearse and put a wreath on Bela Lugosi’s grave in Hollywood.
What counts now?
Today you spend millions of dollars on TV advertising. Love at First Bite, for instance, cost $3 million to make and $4 million to market. You also have to contract six months to a year in advance to get network time for commercials. Before the theater operators agree to book your picture, they want to know how much money you’re going to spend.
What’s your opinion of the artistically ambitious younger directors?
I have great respect for Francis Coppola; he came up through the business and has done all kinds of films. But Michael Cimino, who won an Oscar for The Deer Hunter, is just contemplating his navel. If I have a complaint about young filmmakers, it’s that they tend to imitate the old masters and are therefore derivative. And they don’t have nearly enough discipline. The auteur theory has led to great excesses of time and money.
How do movies stack up as art?
I don’t think we’ve yet made films that will last as long as some of Michaelangelo’s statues. How much of the work of the 1600s is still around except Shakespeare? This is a very young art and it’s changing. But I think we deserve to be in a museum at least as much as Andy Warhol’s soup cans.