Jonathan Kaplan was born in Paris, France, to film composer Sol Kaplan and actress Frances Heflin. He started his career as a child actor on Broadway. He also performed as a child in Elaine May's improvisational theatre. Kaplan earned his B.A. at the University of Chicago and attended New York University's Film School. While at NYU Kaplan edited a film for PBS and worked at the Fillmore East. He then received a call from Roger Corman, who offered him a chance to direct his first Hollywood film, Night Call Nurses. Kaplan displayed sufficient resourcefulness on a severely restricted budget to be given another Corman feature to direct.