LONGWORTH-Peter Bogdanovich.jpg

It is both surprising and shameful that Peter Bogdanovich doesn’t have a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and yet, a single star wouldn’t do him justice anyway. Truth be told, it would take at least a dozen stars to properly honor Peter. That’s because he was a director, writer, producer, editor, cinematographer, film preservationist, actor, casting agent, documentarian, author, voice-over talent, and film historian. And, oh yes, he was a college professor who taught directing at the UNC School of the Arts for a while. It was during that period of time that I caught up with Peter the Great for a series of conversations about his career. He was generous with his time and loved talking about filmmaking, of which he was both a fan and an expert. Peter Bogdanovich passed away on January 6. He was 82.

I wrote a series of columns about Peter back in 2011, one of which dealt with his directorial debut (Targets), and the other about his signature masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, which, at the time, was celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Targets, produced in 1968, is the story of an average American man who goes off his nut and turns into a mass-murdering sniper. One of the killer’s targets is a retired Hollywood horror icon, played by Boris Karloff. I asked Peter if he had hoped the film would bring about better gun laws in America.

“I thought it would raise a little bit of controversy. It didn’t raise much. The thing that’s awful about the film is that it’s not dated. Unfortunately, that story (a guy gets a gun and starts killing people) is still very much alive.

And while there’s a message in all of Bogdanovich’s films, they are not, per se, message films. Most were made for the pure enjoyment of the audience, whether period pieces, slapstick comedies, or musicals. Targets was the exception, and, for the most part, so was The Last Picture Show, which portrayed life in a dying Texas town. The film won Oscars for character actor Ben Johnson, as well as for Cloris Leachman in one of her few dramatic roles. I asked Peter if he shot Picture Show in black and white in order to save money.

“That had nothing to do with it. In fact, it was probably a little more expensive to do it in black and white because the labs weren’t used to it. The period of the film was early fifties, which was still a black and white period. The other reason is Orson Welles told me, ‘Every performance looks better in black and white,’ and he was right.”

Peter was also a master at spotting talent and assembling a cast. In addition to tapping Johnson and Leachman for The Last Picture Show, he also hired Ellen Burstyn, and two young unknowns, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, to co-star in the dark drama. He also launched the career of Tatum O’Neil in Paper Moon, for which she won an Oscar. Given his expertise at casting, I was surprised to learn that he has a disdain for the auditioning process.

“Auditioning is humiliating, and not a fair way to judge talent. You get one actor in the room and he’s very nervous, then there are other actors who are very good at reading, but when they get to performance it isn’t as good as it promised to be in the reading. That’s why I would often cast people by just sitting and talking with them for a half-hour or forty-five minutes.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Peter is not his film credits, but rather it was his unmistakable voice, and how he used it to keep Hollywood alive, whether lecturing, narrating a documentary, providing commentary on DVDs, doing podcasts, or just having a private conversation. That voice will be missed.

Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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