Ed Nelson, Roger Corman and the explosion of the B-movie

Ed Nelson’s path to Hollywood went right through a Louisiana swamp.

There he was in 1955, stuck in an abandoned hotel near Bayou Lacombe, schlepping as a “gofer” for aspiring filmmaker Roger Corman on the set of Corman’s second directing effort, “Swamp Women.” The plot: a New Orleans police lieutenant (Carol Mathews) goes undercover in a women’s prison and leads an escape in the hopes that three inmates (Corman regular Beverly Garland, Marie Windsor and Jil Jarmin) will lead her to the diamonds they stole before getting caught.

While the film begins in New Orleans (set during Carnival, and complete with lots of archival footage from a Rex parade), most of the movie was shot out near Lacombe.

“It was a difficult shoot; the weather was hot and humid, with none of the studio comforts the performers were accustomed to,” Nelson told old friend and co-author Alvin M. Cotlar in their 2008 collaboration, “Beyond Peyton Place: My Fifty Years on Stage, Screen and Television.”

Nelson died Aug. 9 of congestive heart failure at the age of 85, but he left behind a legacy of work in movies and television highlighted by his years in the 1960s as Dr. Michael Rossi on ABC’s prime-time soap opera “Peyton Place.”

He found TV fame after paying his dues, starting with his work in and on Corman movies — about 15 in all, starting with “Swamp Women” and including “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “A Bucket of Blood,” “Hot Car Girl” and “Teenage Cave Man.”

But Nelson, who seemed just as cunning as Corman, knew a golden opportunity when he saw one, and so he filled in wherever he was needed and along the way earned a bit part as a cop. But mainly, he handled the dirty details of crew work.Ed Nelson works on a script for Roger Corman’s ‘Teenage Doll,’ with New Orleans drive-in movie owners Bernard and Lawrence Woolner, 1957. It was the Woolners who brought the script for ‘Swamp Women’ to Corman’s attention, leading to the film being shot (over 10 days) in and around New Orleans, with Nelson signing on as a crew member and bit actor. (Republished from ‘Beyond Peyton Place,’ by Ed Nelson and Alvin M. Cotlar, M.D., through Word Association Publishers)

“This included bringing the limited supply of hot water to the almost primitive hotel rooms at the Georgian Manor so the performers and crew could bathe,” Nelson recalled in the book. “I made hot coffee for the cast and crew, and maintained a cooler of cold Barq’s Root Beer, Louisiana’s favorite soft drink, when the heat was at its worst.”

The conditions at the abandoned hotel were so bad, as one Corman biographer noted, on their first night there one of the beds collapsed on an actress just after she’d fallen asleep. That said, the cast and crew admired Corman’s savvy, Beverly Garland noted.

“Roger was always very professional, except when it came to putting us up in a good hotel or giving us a decent meal,’ Garland said, according to Mark Thomas McGee’s “Roger Corman: The Best of the Cheap Acts.” McGee writes: “Looking back on those days she concluded that they both got pretty much what they wanted out of the deal.”

While he wasn’t sure what to make of Corman personally, Nelson admired the budding filmmaker’s style for getting the job done.

“He and I shared the same work ethic: we both loved to work,” Nelson said. “He hired me because I met his criterion: to get the best actors, writers, and crew at minimal expense. He liked my downplaying the “movie star” role, but he recognized my creativity. He used my experience to help solve set, scene, and other problems.

“We never developed a close personal relationship; directors or producers seldom do with their cast members,” Nelson continued in his autobiography. “He never visited my home, nor did I visit his, but when we found problems, we always found a solution together.”

Corman remembers a reliable and likeable actor and crew member who could adapt to any situation.

“He was a very decent and good person,” Corman, now 88, said in a phone interview from his office in California. “He was something of an athlete. I was impressed by his intelligence and the fact we all got along well together.”

Corman wound up in Louisiana after taking a long road trip across the United States with a production partner, Jim Nicholson, in search of potential backers for his B-movies. Back then, the pair often met with the growing number of drive-in theater owners who were looking to finance movies and then secure the films to play their screens. On the trip, according to McGee, Corman and Nicholson met the Woolner brothers — Lawrence, Bernard and David — who had opened New Orleans’ first drive-in theaters.

In “There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans,” theater owner Rene Brunet Jr. and Jack Stewart noted the Woolner brothers had opened the Drive-In at the intersection of Robert E. Lee and Canal boulevards in Lakeview (in 1940) and later drive-ins on Jefferson Highway and Airline Drive. Looking to get into the production business, Corman said, they agreed to help finance “Swamp Women” for Corman, who returned with his cast and crew for the production.

It followed an early pattern that became the template for Corman productions: a Hollywood crew (sometimes mixed with local help), shooting on the fly over a two-week, sometimes 10-day period, working on a shoestring budget and then turning a profit as the next film began production. He directed and/or produced so many films, a veritable who’s who of Hollywood wound up on his set one way or another: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, James Cameron, John Sayles … the list is long.

Ed Nelson and Roger Corman: A Filmography

“A Bucket of Blood” (1959)
“T-Bird Gang” (1959)
“I, Mobster” (1958)
“The Brain Eaters” (1958)
“Hot Car Girl” (1958)
“The Cry Baby Killer” (1958)
“Night of the Blood Beast” (1958)
“She Gods of the Shark Reef” (1958)
“Teenage Cave Man” (1958)
“Carnival Rock” (1957)
“Teenage Doll” (1957)
“Invasion of the Saucer-Men” (1957)
“Rock All Night” (1957)
“Attack of the Crab Monsters” (1957)
“Swamp Women” (1956)

When Nelson learned of Corman and his crew coming town — and knowing they needed some help from local talent — he figured he’d be a good fit. He had TV experience from working in New York before returning to New Orleans as the floor manager for WDSU. “… I had the gut feeling that being a part of the Corman group would boost my career,” Nelson said. “I was right.”

Despite the heat, humidity and challenging work conditions, Nelson recalled the memories sweetly. There was the work with the infamous Arthur Jones, who ran a roadside attraction off Highway 11 in nearby Slidell. Jones, according to Nelson’s book, agreed to provide wild animals, including an alligator (which Mike Connors, later TV’s “Mannix,” kills with a knife), as well as a rattlesnake.

“The camera was set up at ground level, with a short lens to keep focus,” Nelson recalled. “By holding his hand in front of the lens, Art would excite the rattler long enough so that it would rattle its tail and prepare to strike. He would pull his hand back just in time to film the snake’s open-mouthed, lightning-fast strike. …

Nelson also noted Arthur Jones’ later claim to fame as the inventor of the popular Nautilus exercise machine.

If there is a star of the movie, it’s Fred West’s impressive cinematography of Bayou Lacombe, with its bending waters and hanging moss, sunlight streaming through.

“The bayous were very beautiful,” Corman said.

“Swamp Women” legacy is dubious. It was included as one of the selections in the book, “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time,” and received its share of mocking in a episode of the satirical TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” under its repackaged title, “Swamp Diamonds.”)

Corman promised Nelson he’d call for him if he needed any help back out in Hollywood, and eventually made good on his promise and brought the younger actor out for several more productions that followed the same pattern: hard crew work rewarded with bit parts here and there. Nelson joked at how, at least technically, he played the “title role” in “Attack of the Crab Monsters” in that he actually was the stunt man working the controls of the monster from inside the prop.

“I remember on ‘Attack of the Crab Monsters,’ [Nelson] played a part in the film and also handled the special effects of the crab climbing over the rocks to the ocean,” Corman said. “He did a great job, because the waves coming in from the ocean were a little stronger than expected, and he handled it pretty well.”

At a slender 135 pounds, Nelson even agreed to serve as the underwater stunt double for the female lead, Pamela Duncan, after convincing Corman that he had once been a scuba instructor at Lake Pontchartrain. (“He had no idea it was impossible to go scuba diving in Lake Pontchartrain,” Nelson mused, adding that he convinced a crew member to teach him how.)

After about five years of these kind of experiences, Nelson figured he had learned about all he could from working on Corman’s movies. (During the same period, he’d returned to Louisiana to film a non-Corman B-movie, “Bayou,” shot around Barataria Bay,” in 1957.) It was time to move on to bigger and better things, if possible.

“His company of ‘regulars’ worked in almost all of his pictures,” Nelson said. “They stayed with him for years, were perfect for his flicks, and that is where most of them ended their careers.
‘He hired me because I met his criterion: to get the best actors, writers, and crew at minimal expense.’ — Ed Nelson, on Roger Corman

“That was never my plan.”

Indeed, throughout the 1960s, Nelson gained steadily better roles, especially in television, but also bit parts in major films such as “Elmer Gantry” (1960) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) before landing the role of his lifetime in 1964: Dr. Michael Rossi in ABC’s “Peyton Place,” which he played on a five-year run.

Writing in his autobiography, Nelson looked back fondly on his adventures with Corman:

“Like many others, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Roger Corman, who gave me my start,” Nelson said in 2008. “He is often accused of taking advantage of young performers, which is ridiculous, since we really ‘used’ him to learn the ropes and to be ‘ready,’ no matter what the situation.

“I treasure those wonderful years with this legend.”