Peter Bogdanovich puts up his Dukes in independent comedy now on DVD

by Mark Burger

Peter Bogdanovich is undoubtedly bestknown as an Oscarnominated filmmaker (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Mask) and a renowned Hollywood historian, having written extensively about such filmmakers as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, to name a few.

More recently, he’s become a faculty member at the School of Filmmaking at the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. At graduation last month, Bogdanovich not only gave the commencement speech but was himself bestowed with an honorary doctorate.

In addition, he’s also an in-demand character actor, having earned a new generation of 21 st century fans as Dr. Eliot Kupferberg, the psychiatrist of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in HBO’s Emmy Award-winning “The Sopranos.” These days, one is as apt to see Bogdanovich in front of the cameras instead of behind it.

Acting is nothing new to Bogdanovich. As a teenager growing up in New York City, he studied under the legendary Stella Adler and appeared on stage and television. Even after turning his attention to directing, he periodically appeared in acting roles. In his first feature, Targets (1968), Bogdanovich played an ambitious young filmmaker (no great stretch) when actor friend George Morfogen, originally cast in the role, proved unavailable. In Saint Jack (1979), which starred Ben Gazzara in the title role, Bogdanovich played the pivotal role of a sleazy American businessman at large in Singapore.

In The Dukes, now available on DVD from E1 Entertainment, Bogdanovich plays Lou Fiola, the veteran agent still scraping up gigs (meager though they may be) for George (Chazz Palminteri) and Danny (Robert Davi), onetime doo-wop stars whose 15 minutes of fame expired nearly 40 years before.

With financial responsibilities looming and Lou’s leads going nowhere, George and Danny recruit their fellow bandmates Murph (Elya Baskin) and Armond (Frank D’Amico) to engage in a little larceny — by cracking a dental laboratory’s safe for its stash of gold. If the idea seems crazy, the execution proves even more so.

The film was a long-cherished pet project of actor/producer Davi (Die Hard, Licence to Kill), who makes his feature directorial debut with The Dukes and wrote the screenplay with fellow actor James Andronica, then nursed it through nearly two decades of development.

Simply put, the film was “a labor of love,” said Bogdanovich. “It was Robert’s baby. He was the driving force, and he was going to make it by hook or by crook — and we did!” Bogdanovich noted with some amusement the parallels between putting the project together with Davi’s character putting the heist together in the film. It took some crazy twists and turns, but in the end it worked out just fine — and to everyone’s satisfaction.

“It’s a charming little movie,” he said, “and I’m happy it’s out now, because Robert really worked hard on it. I think people will enjoy it. It has kind of a Clifford Odets feel to it.” (To say nothing of Damon Runyon.)

The film proved a swan song of sorts for co-star D’Amico, who like his Dukes character was suffering ill health. The actor completed one more film (The Flyboys, AKA Sky Kids) before passing away in 2008. “Frank was a sweet man,” said Bogdanovich. “This was a special role for him.”

When he’s hired as an actor, Bogdanovich doesn’t impose any directorial advice or tips. He’s there to play the character. However, if his opinion is solicited, “What am I going to do, say no?” he chuckled.

After all, he reasoned, filmmaking is very much a collaborative effort, and the common goal is to make a good film.

Bogdanovich admitted that Davi asked his advice “two or three times… but he knew what he wanted to do. If I was able to help in some small way, I was happy to — but this is his film.”

Bogdanovich not only enjoyed playing his role, but The Dukes was also a gathering of friends. Palminteri (also a co-producer) and Davi had known each other for years. D‘Amico was an old pal of theirs, and Bogdanovich and Davi go back a ways too.

“It was a very congenial set,” Bogdanovich said, noting that his only disappointment, so to speak, was that the shooting schedule was so tight that he couldn’t enjoy their company even longer.

After the film’s completion, Bogdanovich joined Davi for post-production work in Rome. “It cost more to fly me to Rome than I got for the movie!” he laughed, but he’s not complaining, having not visited Italy since he made his Henry James adaptation of Daisy Miller, starring Cybill Shepherd in the title role, there some 35 years before.

“It was great to go there with Robert,” he said.

“I love Rome and it was wonderful to go back. We had a great time.”

Bogdanovich will next be seen in Abandoned, a medical thriller due for release from Anchor Bay Entertainment on DVD later this summer. In it, he plays a sympathetic but skeptical hospital psychiatrist (and a possible red herring). Bogdanovich enjoyed making the film but takes with it some bittersweet memories, as the film’s leading lady was Brittany Murphy in her final role.

Awaiting release are writer/director Amir Mann’s psychological thriller The Fifth Patient, co-starring Nick Chinlund and Marley Shelton; and Queen of the Lot, the latest comedy from indie filmmakert Henry Jaglom, another old pal of Bogdanovich’s. Bogdanovich also has his own projects in the works, including a comedy titled Squirrel to the Nuts (“With a title like that, it had better be a comedy!” he joked), and a possible foray into the supernatural, albeit in no way the standard horror film. He wants to do a more dreamlike, ethereal ghost story — not some slash-and-burn monstrosity.

In addition, Bogdanovich will be back in action at the School of Filmmaking next semester and he’s also putting the finishing touches on yet another book about Hollywood’s history. He says he likes keeping busy, and it’s obvious from his enthusiasm that he’s doing what he likes.