Anyone who loves movies, and movie history, owes a giant debt of thanks to Peter Bogdanovich for interviewing, chronicling, and bearing witness to so many veterans of Hollywood’s golden age. Listening to the audio version of his fascinating book This is Orson Welles is one of the great experiences of my life. The book reads well but springs to life when you hear the Great Man himself, as recorded in a wide variety of locations over many years’ time. (I still have my well-worn audiocassette.)
I first met Peter at a reception at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan celebrating the publication of his book on Allan Dwan. (That was 51 years ago!) I told him how much I enjoyed the program notes he wrote for my favorite revival theater, The New Yorker. We chatted about the impending release of his first major film, The Last Picture Show, and I marveled at his ability to get backing for a black & white movie. He told he how difficult it was to get that OK but he swore he wouldn’t make it any other way.
Peter had an air of self-assurance that some read as arrogance but that was who he was. Success didn’t really change him. The only addition to his appearance was an ever-present ascot.
I can also vouch for his generosity. I dropped him a note explaining that I was editing The Laurel & Hardy Book and asked if I could read any of his oral history with director Leo McCarey, who played such a vital role in the team’s development. He instructed his assistant to photocopy all the relevant pages in his transcript of his conversations with the late filmmaker. Not every researcher or historian is so willing to share.
After making the 1971 documentary Directed by John Ford (which he expanded in 2006) he had a Western script he hoped to shoot with John Wayne and James Stewart in the leading roles. He spoke of it as a done deal but it turned out to be more of a pipe dream.
Yet unlike other film buffs-turned-directors, he was more than a mere wannabe. He made some truly great films, led by The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. Much can be said of What’s Up, Doc?, Targets, Saint Jack, Mask, Noises Off, The Thing Called Love, and The Cat’s Meow. He enjoyed acting, as well, and made a lasting impression as the psychiatrist on The Sopranos. I daresay nothing gave him greater pleasure than doing his vocal impressions of Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and other famous filmmakers he’d gotten to know. Not unlike his friend and hero Orson Welles, he had a bit of ham in his DNA.