Peter Bogdanovich, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of The Last Picture Show whose career, which also included hits like What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, put him on a path toward living up to the example of those like Orson Welles and John Ford he so lionized, has died. He was 82.
Bogdanovich died early Thursday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, his daughter Antonia Bogdanovich told The Hollywood Reporter.
Bogdanovich, whose ever-present horn-rimmed glasses and ascot imbued him with a professorial air as he recounted the Hollywood lore he relished, catapulted to A-list status with his second film, The Last Picture Show (1971). The black-and-white drama set in a Texas town earned eight Academy Awards nominations — including directing and adapted screenplay (shared with Larry McMurtry) honors for him — and supporting acting awards for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson.
“Bogdanovich, 31, has achieved a tactile sense of time and place,” Stefan Kanfer raved in Time magazine shortly after the movie opened. “More, he has performed that most difficult of all cinematic feats: he has made ennui fascinating. Together, that is enough to herald him as possibly the most exciting new director in America today.”
“It spoke to a lot of people,” Bogdanovich himself would say later in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “People have told me that it reminds them of their hometown, so I think it has a certain universality to it. Young love, and sex and all that, is pretty universal.”
Bogdanovich also came away from the project with a new love, golden-girl actress Cybill Shepherd, the model who had made her feature debut in the film after he spotted her on the cover of Glamour magazine. That led to the breakup of his marriage to Oscar-nominated production designer and frequent collaborator Polly Platt, with whom he had two daughters.
He went on to make two more films with Shepherd: the decorous Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller (1974) and the musical At Long Last Love (1975), which also starred Burt Reynolds gamely singing and dancing to Cole Porter tunes. But both flopped as many in Hollywood — who just a few years earlier had praised him for re-energizing the industry — turned against him.
“They were pissed off that I was having an affair with [Shepherd],” Bogdanovich said in a 2019 interview with Vulture. “I’ve seen pictures of us; I look like an arrogant, attractive guy, and she looks like a sexy girl. And we were rich and we were famous and we did movies together.
“Sometime in the mid-’70s, when we were getting terrible press, Cary Grant called me. He says, ‘Peter, will you for Christ’s sake stop telling people you’re happy? And stop telling them you’re in love.’ I said, ‘Why, Cary?’ ‘Because they’re not happy and they’re not in love.’ He was right.”
While his next two Picture Show follow-ups — the wacky screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972), starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, and Paper Moon (1973), with O’Neal and his daughter Tatum (who won a best supporting actress Oscar) portraying Depression-era con artists — were critical and commercial hits, Bogdanovich’s golden-boy status would be short-lived.
The Directors Company, which he, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin had set up at Paramount in 1972, quickly dissolved after Daisy Miller as the partners went their separate ways.
Bogdanovich found himself entangled in tabloid headlines in 1980 when Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, with whom he’d begun an affair while directing her in the romantic comedy They All Laughed (1981), was murdered by her husband, Paul Snider, who then killed himself.
A distraught Bogdanovich bought They All Laughed from 20th Century Fox and attempted to distribute the film himself. The movie did poorly, though, and contributed to him filing for bankruptcy protection.
In 1984, Bogdanovich wrote a book The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980, in which he laid much of the blame for Stratten’s demise on Hugh Hefner, arguing the Playboy founder triggered Snider’s wrath when he banned him from his mansion. “If I had to confront my own responsibility, there could be no way to ignore his,” he wrote. “She could not handle the slick professional machinery of the Playboy sex factory, nor the continual efforts of its founder to bring her into his personal fold, no matter what she wanted.”
While Bogdanovich persevered — in addition to writing and directing, he also took on acting gigs, most prominently appearing as a psychotherapist on HBO’s The Sopranos — his career came full circle in 2019 when helped bring Welles’ long-gestating The Other Side of the Wind to the screen.
In the film, originally shot in the early to mid-’70s — Bogdanovich executive produced the completed version alongside producer Frank Marshall — he appears as young hotshot filmmaker Brooks Otterlake opposite John Huston’s larger-than-life director Jack Hannaford, a stand-in for Welles. Their characters appear to be playing out their own complicated master/protégé relationship.
Taking part in a New York Film Festival panel discussion, Bogdanovich said of the completed work: “It’s a very sad story, it’s a sad movie, it’s an ‘end of everything’ kind of movie. The only thing that survives is the artistry. And that’s what Orson did even in Citizen Kane, which is about as negative a movie as you can imagine. Nobody gets what they want, it all ends in tragedy, and it’s brilliantly done so that you forget that and say, ‘harder.’ And that’s what you say in this. The artistry saves you from death. You say, ‘Orson’s alive.’”
Peter Bogdanovich was born on July 30, 1939, in Kingston, New York, the son of a Serbian painter. At age 12, he began keeping a card file on his opinions on every movie he had seen. By 16, he was studying acting with Stella Adler, and he carried a spear in a 1957 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Othello.
Around that time, he decided to direct. “It was a big mistake, because actors don’t have to work as hard and get paid more money,” he said in a 1977 conversation at the American Film Institute.
When he was just 20, Clifford Odets gave him a chance to direct and star in an off-Broadway production of The Big Knife, the playwright’s drama about Hollywood. Bogdanovich raised $15,000 to stage the play, which won strong notices in 1959. Two years later, he was named artistic director of the Phoenicia Playhouse in the Catskill Mountains and led revivals of Camino Real, Ten Little Indians and Rocket to the Moon. He then directed and co-produced another revival off-Broadway, Once in a Lifetime, in 1964.
Bogdanovich was writing film criticism and feature articles for Esquire and other publications when he was encouraged by director Frank Tashlin to move to Hollywood, so he and Platt, whom he married in 1962, drove across the country.
There, he met Roger Corman, who knew him from his Esquire pieces, and the famed producer put him to work on the Peter Fonda biker flick The Wild Angels (1966). He wound up rewriting the screenplay and directing the end of the movie. The film, which cost about $360,000, grossed $15 million and was Corman’s most successful moneymaker to that point.
Two years later, backed by Corman, Bogdanovich wrote, directed and appeared in his first film, Targets, which starred Boris Karloff, who owed Corman two shooting days. The picture, about a sniper who takes aim at a drive-in crowd, was inspired by Charles Whitman, who killed more than a dozen people at the University of Texas in August 1966.
Bogdanovich would come to condemn onscreen violence, however. Writing in The Hollywood Reporter in response to the 2012 shooting in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, he said: “Today, there’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. Back in the ’70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures and he said, “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Colosseum.” The respect for human life seems to be eroding.”
Platt read McMurtry’s 1966 novel The Last Picture Show and encouraged Bogdanovich to make a movie out of it. Set in 1951 in the decaying town of Anarene, Texas, the film was nominated for best picture.
His other films ranged from Nickelodeon (1976), a homage to Hollywood’s silent era that starred O’Neal and Reynolds; Saint Jack (1979), in which Ben Gazzara played a benevolent brothel owner in Singapore; Mask (1985), starring Cher as the mother of a disfigured son; and Texasville (1990), a sequel to The Last Picture Show that failed to duplicate the success of the original.
Most recently, Bogdanovich directed the comedy She’s Funny That Way (2014), starring Owen Wilson and Imogen Poots, and the documentary The Great Buster, about silent film legend Buster Keaton, which played Venice and Telluride in 2018.
“I’ve learned one thing: Every movie you make can’t be life or death,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “You just have to keep on making films and hoping for the best.”
Bogdanovich co-wrote She’s Funny That Way with Louise Hoogstraten, Stratten’s younger sister whom he married in 1988, when she was 20. Although they divorced in 2001, they remained friends, and he moved into a Toluca Lake apartment she shared with her mother after he shattered his femur in an accident while attending a film festival in Lyon, France in late 2018.
By age 30, before his film career took off, Bogdanovich was an established journalist and scholar of cinema. He had monographs published by the Museum of Modern Art Film Library on Welles, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. For a generation of film school students, he served as surrogate professor, serving up large volumes of pieces on directors and the studios.
He also published a 1997 book, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Directors, and assembled another book in 2004, Who The Hell’s in It: Portraits and Conversations, containing 26 profiles and interviews.
Bogdanovich also developed a one-man stage show called Sacred Monsters in which he related anecdotes about his filmmaking career and performed impressions of the famous directors he encountered.
In 1971, he wrote and directed a documentary about Ford for the California Arts Commission and AFI that he revised in 2006 when it aired on Turner Classic Movies. More recently, he teamed with TCM on a Plot Thickens podcast.
Recalling a conversation he had with Welles shortly before the Citizen Kane director died in 1985, Bogdanovich seemed to be looking back on his own life: “I said, ‘Jesus, Orson, I feel like I made so many mistakes.’ And he said, ‘Well, it does seem difficult to go through life without making a great many of them,’ which was our way of rekindling our friendship. That was the last time we spoke.”
Survivors include his daughters, Antonia and Sashy.