My wife and I first met Sam Arkoff, co-founder of American International Pictures, in the late 1980s at a revival screening of “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” at the Strand Theatre in San Francisco. It seemed as though his giant cigar preceded him into the room. After the showing, he invited us to get a hamburger. On the way, my wife told Arkoff that he made her favorite film at that time. Sam: I did? She was telling the truth…it was “Love at First Bite”. By the way, when I was a kid the AIP Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, beginning with The Houses of Usher (1960), were absolute movie-bliss for this 12 year old.
Between 1971 and 2001 my firm, Kit Parker Films, distributed films to revival houses, colleges, and so on. After we had eaten our hamburgers, Sam agreed to let me distribute the few films he still owned. By then he had already sold his substantial AIP library to Filmways, which became Orion Pictures, and soon thereafter went kaput. This broke Sam’s heart. “The biggest mistake I ever made.” (The library is presently owned by MGM.) Now he had too much time on his hands…especially tough for a creative, hard-charging guy like Sam. FYI: he kept the “AIP” initials, but they now stood for Arkoff International Pictures.
(Trivia: AIP’s biggest hit was “The Amityville Horror” (1979), grossing over $250,000,000 in 2010 dollars)
Sam was a great raconteur and throughout our friendship, I hung onto every word of his many, many great stories. Meanwhile, I arranged retrospectives of his films and he would give a talk and answer questions. Two especially memorable engagements were in Honoluluand New York City, where we both brought our wives. His wife Hilda is a delightful, cultured woman, and accomplished sculptor. I remember having dinner with them and out of nowhere she said, “Sam, thank you for the great times we’ve had together.”
Sam was a very creative guy, not just a tough, shrewd businessman, someone with whom you wouldn’t want to lock horns. He recognized talent and was always happy to tell you about his AIP alumni, Roger Corman (of course), Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese…too many to list here. I was only able to come up with one he didn’t know, “Little” Stevie Wonder, who sang in both “Muscle Beach Party” and “Bikini Beach” (both 1964).
In his later years, Sam would often call me, usually once, but sometimes 4-5 times a day. His secretary would ask for me and say “Mr. Arkoff is on the line.” Sam always had questions about his forthcoming biography or the retrospectives. He did keep his hand in at least a few films, remakes of early AIP pictures including “Teenage Caveman” (1991) and “Earth vs. the Spider” (1992). I heard his stories so many times, I could give his speech verbatim. My favorite Arkoff one-liner he only said once, “That’s complete unmitigated bullshit!”
In the 1950s, AIP decided to cash in on the success of Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959). Sam went to Italy to buy pictures, knowing in advance they couldn’t use the name “Hercules,” as it was registered to another studio. So “Hercules” became “Goliath”… typical AIP ingenuity. He told me a story I don’t think I’ve ever heard before or since. Sam spent several days screening two gladiator movies on the same screen, side by side, taking notes and conducting business on the phone all at the same time. So, he was not only tough, shrewd and creative, but also a master of multitasking and endurance! He’s been gone 10 years now, and I’d give anything to get one more phone call with one more story…I don’t care if I’ve already heard it 50 times.
There isn’t enough room to go into the history of American International Pictures (AIP) or a biography of Sam Arkoff, so here are a few links that might be of interest:
- Capsule history of AIP: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_International_Pictures
- Book on AIP: Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures by Mark Thomas McGee (McFarland & Company, 1995)
- Interview with Arkoff , Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup” Tom Weaver (McFarland, 1988). BTW, In my opinion, Tom Weaver is far and away the best of the interviewers.
- Must-read autobiography: “Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants” By Sam Arkoff, with Richard Tubo (Carol Publishing, 1992).