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Peter the Great: The man who slept with Frankenstein

by Jim Longworth

Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I’ve always admired men who master every aspect of their craft. Richard Petty, for example, didn’t just drive cars, he could also get under the hood and fix the engine. Likewise there are a handful of filmmakers who don’t just direct, they can also “get under the hood” and do whatever it takes to make a great movie. Peter Bogdanovich belongs to that elite group of Hollywood directors who can also write, produce, edit and act. He does it all, and he’s a critic, author and film historian to boot. Last Spring, Bogdanovich added another moniker to his résumé. He is now a professor at UNC School of the Arts, where he shapes the minds and talents of aspiring filmmakers.

“I’m basically deconstructing one of my own pictures for the ([student] directors,” he said. “In other words, I take a picture of mine, run it for them and go through it scene by scene, and tell them why I shot it the way I did.”

Bogdanovich achieved superstar status in the 1970s, helming such classics as The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon and What’s Up Doc? But his big break came in 1968 when horror meister Roger Corman let the young man from Kingston, NY take over a low-budget project starring an elderly and ailing Boris Karloff. Targets was a morality play about societal violence, and centered on a serial killer who picked off motorists and pedestrians with a high powered rifle.

Bogdanovich had hoped the film would have an impact on gun laws in America.

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

Targets met with high praise from critics, and has since become a cult classic, due in large part to Karloff, who had risen to worldwide fame 37 years earlier as the Frankenstein monster. In Targets, Karloff plays an aging horror-movie star who takes a young director (played by Bogdanovich) under his wing. In one scene, the two men have imbibed a bit too much, and end up passing out on the same bed, giving Bogdanovich the distinction of being the only man to have ever slept with Boris Karloff.

As his film career progressed, Peter also displayed an uncanny talent for casting just the right people for each project. In The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich launched the careers of Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, and netted Oscar wins for veteran actors Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Later, in Paper Moon, he coaxed an Academy Award performance out of young Tatum O’Neal. Throughout it all, he maintained a disdain for auditioning.

“Auditioning is humiliating, and not a fair way to judge talent,” he said. “You get a [good] actor into a room, and he’s very nervous. Then there are actors who are very good at reading, but when they get to the 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 40 minutes.”

Bogdanovich is truly an actor’s director, having performed on stage, film and television. “Directing is an extension of acting because I’m trying to get them to give the best performance they can give,” Peter told me. “I remember a simple thing like Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels trying to get off of his motorcycle. I told him he looked effeminate getting off the bike. He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So I got on the bike. I had never been on a motorcycle, but I used to ride horses, and when I tried to get off the bike, I realized what the problem was. A motorcycle is a lot higher than you think it is, so you have to swing your leg quite far out to get over it, just as you do getting off of a horse. So I told Peter not to bend his leg, but to put it straight out. Now I wouldn’t have known to give him that advice if I wasn’t an actor, and said, ‘Let me try it.’” In fact, Bogdanovich’s acting credits are extensive, having appeared on such hit shows as “The Sopranos” and “Law & Order Criminal Intent,” and he is still in great demand on both the small and big screens. But you won’t see him acting in or directing what he calls pretentious films. Said Peter, “Storytelling is about the story and not the telling. A lot of recent films are just cut, cut, cut…. It’s flashy filmmaking where you are distracted from the story.”

No doubt his students at the School of the Arts have already heard and heeded that message. I also hope they realize how fortunate they are to be under the tutelage of one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Me, I just think he’s cool because he slept with Boris Karloff.

(Next week, the 40 th anniversary of The Last Picture Show.)

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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