When talking with Roger Corman about his Edgar Allan Poe movies, I took the opportunity to ask him about his dinner meeting with Orson Welles, which took place in the mid-seventies when Corman and Peter Bogdanovich were preparing St. Jack, which Welles was originally supposed to direct.
Unfortunately, I forgot to ask Corman about Welles initial participation in directing St. Jack, but did ask Roger about what he and Welles talked about during their dinner meeting.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You talked about going to dinner with Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles one time, and I was very curious if you can remember anything of that meeting?
ROGER CORMAN: We talked about films in general, films of Orson's, films of mine, films of Peter's, and in particular, when I did The St. Valentine's Day Massacre for Fox, (in 1967). I wanted to have Orson Welles play Al Capone, and Jason Robards for Bugs Moran, because the St. Valentine's Day Massacre was the attempt of Capone to wipe out his chief rival, Bugs Moran. So my idea was to get two distinguished actors to play those parts, and Jason Robards was thin and Irish, as was Bugs Moran, and both Capone and Welles were big, heavyweight guys. But the executives at Fox said to me, "Roger, you're a young director and we have to tell you, nobody can work with Orson Welles. He just takes over the set on any picture he's in and the director ends up just standing there, even if he's only an actor. So don't get involved with this, let's find somebody else. They also said, "He probably isn't going to want to play Al Capone, anyway."
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That's funny, because Orson Welles said he knew gangsters like Lucky Luciano, and that he would have sold his soul to play Don Corlene in Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER, but the part was never offered to him. And from what you say, he apparently never got the offer to play Al Capone, either.
ROGER CORMAN: No, he didn't, because we moved Jason Robards into the leading role of Al Capone, even though we both thought he was better suited for the role of Bugs Moran. And for Bugs Moran, instead of Jason, we used Ralph Meeker. Then, much later on, at this dinner I had with Orson, he told me, "I would have loved to play Al Capone, and who says I can't take direction?"
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course, Welles did have the reputation of sometimes taking over the direction of films he was acting in, so if he had played Al Capone in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre and had tried to direct his own scenes, do you think you would you have allowed that?
ROGER CORMAN: No, I would not. Being a young director and not being that experienced with actors, I probably would have, without question, held onto my choice of shots. But I would have eased my position with him as an actor and probably allowed him, provided he didn't go too far from what I was thinking, would have allowed him to express himself as an actor, because he was a brilliant actor!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That's nice to hear, because Welles himself said something that was very interesting. He said that anyone on his set could make suggestions and he would consider them. It didn't mean he'd use them, but he welcomed any ideas, even if it was from a grip.
ROGER CORMAN: I followed the same thinking. Chuck Hanawalt was my key grip on most of the Poe films, and he was very bright. And very often I would use Chuck's ideas. And of course, my cameraman was Floyd Crosby, who would often have ideas, so although most of the shots were what I wanted to do, I would take ideas from anybody. Or at least I would listen to the ideas, and pick what I think worked best.
NOTE: Floyd Crosby, was the brilliant Oscar-winning cinematograher of F.W. Murnau’s Tabu (1931) and ten years later, found himself shooting on Welles own ill-fated project, It’s All True. Crosby shot the stunning black & white footage for the My Friend Bonita episode of It’s All True, that was directed by Norman Foster and intended for inclusion as one of the three episodes of that never completed movie.