Peter Bogdanovich, who was nominated for two Academy Awards for scripting and directing the 1971 classic The Last Picture Show and who has written one of the definitive books on iconoclastic director Orson Welles, died early this morning at his home in Los Angeles. He was 83.
A lifelong film buff, Bogdanovich’s films almost always bore the influence of the great directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood that he admired such as John Ford, Howard Hawkes, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. He and Welles would become friends in the director’s later years, resulting in Bogdanovich’s book-length collection of their conversations, This Is Orson Welles.
Born in Kingston, New York on July 30, 1939, Bogdanovich started his career with an eye towards acting on the stage. At age 16 he was studying with famed New York acting instructor Stella Adler. By the time he turned 20 he was presented with the opportunity to direct and star in an off-Broadway production of the Clifford Odets drama The Big Knife by none other than Odets himself. In 1961 he was appointed the artistic director of the Phoenicia Playhouse in the Catskill Mountains and three years later he was back off-Broadway directing a revival of Once In A Lifetime.
During this time, Bogdanovich was writing numerous essays and critiques on film, getting them published in a variety of publications including Esquire.
Hollywood beckoned, and with the encouragement of director Frank Tashlin, Bogdanovich answered its call, moving to the movie capital with his wife Polly Platt in 1965. His first job in Los Angeles was for producer Roger Corman, rewriting and eventually directing the ending of the Peter Fonda-starring biker film The Wild Angels (1966). The film grossed $15 million off of its slim $360,000 budget, making Bogdanovich Corman’s golden boy.
Corman offered Bogdanovich his first film to solely write and direct. But the offer came with a condition. He had to use Boris Karloff, but could only have Karloff on set for two days, because that is all the time that Karloff contractually still owed Corman. The result, Targets (1968), was a taut thriller about an aging horror film star wishing to retire and a cold-blooded killer inspired by Charles Whitman, the real life shooter who killed sixteen people while shooting from an observation deck on University of Texas Austin’s Main Building.
While the film was only a modest success, it did get Bogdanovich noticed by the major studios who were soon making offers to the director for his next project. Bogdanovich landed at Columbia with a deal to adapt Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel The Last Picture Show, a book which his wife Platt had brought to his attention. The coming of age drama centered on a group of teens in a dusty Texas town in the early 1950s and starred Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. It would earn eight Academy Award nominations with Johnson and Leachman taking home the Best Supporting Actor and Actress category trophies respectfully.
And while Bogdanovich did not win an Oscar himself for The Last Picture Show, he did win the heart of its young star Shepherd. The two would start an affair that would last through two further movies – Daisy Miller (1974) and At Long Last Love (1975). Both movies failed to ignite the box office or critics as The Last Picture Show did.
But in the immediate success of The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich shot the screwball comedy What’s Up Doc (1972) with Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neil, and then reteamed with O’Neil,who brought along his daughter Tatum for the ride, for the Depression-era drama Paper Moon (1973). They would be the last unqualified hits for the director.
Following the dissolution of his relationship with Shepherd, Bogdanovich became involved with Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten while the two were making the romantic comedy They All Laughed. It ended tragically when Stratten was shot dead by her jealous, estranged husband. After a cursory release of the film failed to ignite the box office, Bogdanovich bought the film back from studio 20th Century Fox with the intention of distributing it himself. His own roll out of the film fared little better and he ultimately had to declare bankruptcy. Bogdanovich would write the book The Killing Of A Unicorn: Dorothy Stratton 1960 – 1980, in which he would blame the hedonistic lifestyle around the Playboy Mansion for ultimately leading to Stratten’s murder.
Other films in Bogdanovich’s filmography include Nickelodeon (1976), Saint Jack (1979) with Ben Gazzara, Mask (1985) with Cher, the Last Picture Show sequel Texasville (1990), Noises Off… (1992), The Cat’s Meow (2001) and She’s Funny That Way (2014). He also directed a handful of documentaries including a 1971 look at director John Ford, 2007’s four hour examination of rocksinger Tom Petty and 2018’s appreciation of the work of silent film comedian Buster Keaton, The Great Buster.
In addition to his tome on Welles, Bogdanovich authored a number of books on Hollywood history including biographies on directors John Ford, Allan Dwan and Fritz Lang as well as Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors and Who The Hell’s In It: Conversations With Hollywood’s Legendary Actors.
Bogdanovich’s last project was helping to oversee the completion of Welles’ The Other Side Of The Wind, a film the director had left incomplete upon his death in 1985.