“I Loved John. I Miss Him a Lot.” Peter Bogdanovich Reminisces on His Friend John Cassavetes

Peter Bogdanovich’s relationships with veteran filmmakers like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and John Ford are well known.

Before he became the celebrated director of The Last Picture Show (1971), Paper Moon (1973), Saint Jack (1979), Mask (1985), Noises Off (1992), The Cat’s Meow (2001) and She’s Funny That Way (2014), Bogdanovich established serious historian credentials with his books on Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles, Lang and Dwan.

Bogdanovich’s association with John Cassavetes is not as famous. These two maverick filmmakers became close friends in the ’70s; in fact, Bogdanovich almost cast Cassavetes in the title role of Saint Jack but settled on Ben Gazzara, whom he met on the set of Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night. Bogdanovich had a lot to say about the cult independent moviemaker when I spoke to him; our conversation follows.

John Gallagher, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In your interview with director Robert Aldrich in your book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors you point out that Aldrich helped get John Cassavetes back into mainstream Hollywood as an actor by casting him in The Dirty Dozen.

Peter Bogdanovich (PB): John told me that. It wasn’t Aldrich, cause Aldrich didn’t brag on himself. John told me he owed it to Aldrich because nobody would hire him, because of the fracas between Cassavetes and [Stanley] Kramer [on A Child is Waiting, 1963]. That was a big thing for John, doing The Dirty Dozen.

MM: He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar.

PB: He’s brilliant in that movie.

MM: The Ray Carney book The Films of John Cassavetes says Cassavetes asked you to direct a scene in Love Streams between him and Dianne Abbott. What’s the story behind that?

PB: I didn’t know he mentioned that. Well, actually I directed two things for John—I mean, they’re minimal. On Opening Night John was running out of money and I let him use my house. I had a projection room in the house that I had on Copa de Oro [in Beverly Hills] at that time. He’d asked me to come down and be an extra in the theater scene in Opening Night. He said Peter Falk was coming down, so I went down and I wore a tuxedo.

MM: It’s the last shot of the film.

PB: I didn’t know what to do when I got there. John just said, “Go over and congratulate Gena [Rowlands],” so I did, and that was that. “You were terrific,” I say and she says to someone, “Do you know Peter Bogdanovich?” It was very funny, I think, at the end of the picture. I knew John was financing it himself and he was running out of money.

I said, “Do you want me to shoot anything for you, shoot some second unit for you?”

He said, “Would you?” and I said, “Sure.”

So he asked me to shoot a couple of shots and I went out, grabbed a few shots of Gena and Joan Blondell in a car pulling into a garage or something. That was it. It took an hour.

Then after Dorothy Stratten [Bogdanovich’s lover] was killed, I didn’t go out much. I was writing the book The Killing of the Unicorn and I just didn’t go out. I was just… John and I were pretty good friends and he intuited, I guess. I didn’t even discuss it with him. I told him I didn’t feel like directing.

He called me up one afternoon and he said, “I need you to come over here and direct the scene I’m doing with Dianne Abbott.”

I said, “What do you mean you need me to direct the scene?”

“I need you to come over and direct the scene. I really need you, can you come over?”

I said, “John, you direct yourself all the time, you don’t need me to direct the fucking scene.”

He said, “Yes I do, now are we friends or what? You’re not gonna help me? Peter. I’m asking you as a favor. Are you gonna come over and help me with the goddamn scene? Are you going to say no?”

I said, “All right, John. You don’t need me but I’ll come over if you want me to.”

He said, “I’m in the scene and I want you to watch the scene, I want you to direct it.”

So I went over and everybody was there, his crew and everybody, shooting in his house. Al Ruban was the producer, the line producer, and he was there. I went in and rehearsed the scene a little bit with John and Dianne. I gave her a piece of business with her flower, y’know. It took a couple of hours. I don’t remember saying much about directing them; a couple of over the shoulders and a shot of her pulling up which John didn’t use, and that was the end of it. He thanked me profusely and everybody made jokes ’cause, you know, John would take a while to direct scenes.

The joke was, Al started kidding John—”Jesus, I mean, let’s keep Peter on here, we got the goddam scene done quickly. Peter does it fast, John!” It really wasn’t hard to do. I directed Dianne marginally, I don’t think I said much, John knew what to do. I just went through the motions but it got me out of the house.

I didn’t realize what he was doing until later, why he’d done it, but it helped me to get the juices going a little bit. A couple of years later I ran the picture and he thanked me at the end of the picture and that’s when I figured out what he’d done and I was very touched. I called him and I said, “Jesus, John, you’re thanking me at the end of the picture—what did I do? I came over.”

He said, “No no no, you were great, it helped me a great deal. In fact I asked the Directors Guild if we could share credit but they wouldn’t let me.”

“Share credit? You mean directing?”

“Yeah!”

“John, you’re crazy.”

“No no, really, it was a big help!”

That was John. John was amazing. I spent a lot of time with him the last four years of his life. I went over to his house a lot. I went through some hell in the early ’80s, which he knew, and then in ’85 we had a lot of problems, with Mask and so on, I finally broke down, went into therapy, went bankrupt. It was a rough year, ’85. They say that about tragedy, when you have that kind of sudden death, that kind of tragic death, that five years later is really tough. It had been predicted to me and it was correct. Then John’s illness started to show and was diagnosed. He’d stopped drinking and smoking and he asked me if I would stand up for him on a picture he was going to do with Sean Penn.

MM: She’s De-Lovely [eventually filmed by Nick Cassavetes and released in 1997 as She’s So Lovely].

PB: Yeah, and would I be there when he directed if they couldn’t get insurance? I said yeah and we went and talked to Sean. Unfortunately Sean took another movie instead, Casualties of War I think it was. She’s De-Lovely fell apart and John was pretty unhappy about it. But for those last few years I would go over there at least once a week and hang out. I was on a special diet, he was on a special diet. He used to kid me cause I came over with melons, I was eating a lot of melon, I’d come over with my own melons, he’d say, “Oh boy, Peter’s here with the melons!” I loved John. I miss him a lot.

MM: You thanked him in the credits of your picture Texasville.

PB: He was very helpful. Did I thank him on the credits?

MM: Yeah.

PB: Because he read the script and he was a big help to me on that. He had great ideas, and, you know, sometimes just encouragement is a lot. People don’t realize if someone says, “Go for it, do it,” it’s great. That’s something. I had that from John. He died before we made Texasville but he’d been helping me with it. In fact in ’89 the Rotterdam Film Festival wanted to give him some kind of award and they wanted to show Opening Night. They asked John to come over and he couldn’t. He was too ill. He asked me to go over and be there for him so I did. He died while I was there. I was talking about him, making a speech after the movie and was informed afterward that he’d passed on. So I wasn’t there for the funeral and the memorial cause I was in Holland.

MM: People couldn’t see Opening Night for years…

PB: I know it.

MM: …and he’s been such an enormous influence on independent filmmakers, the father of indie filmmakers.

PB: People forget, but John Cassavetes was the first American director to do films in the way everybody’s trying to do them now. He did it. Shadows was the first one. That was in fact the only one of his films that was improvised. Everybody thought that he improvised all his pictures but that’s bullshit. He wrote it all. That was the only one that was improvised. I remember they asked Peter Falk was it true that John improvised all his pictures and Peter said [Bogdanovich does a perfect imitation of Falk], “How can you improvise that dialogue? That dialogue is brilliant. That was all written, you can’t improvise that.”

MM: Did you know Cassavetes in New York?

PB: No. I’ve tried to remember when I actually first met him. I think it may have been in Don Siegel’s office [Cassavetes starred in Siegel’s Crime in the Streets in 1956 and The Killers in 1964]. He might have come in and I might have shook hands with him. I remember he came to a screening of What’s Up Doc? here in New York, and I knew him by then but not very well. I remember Shirley MacLaine was there. She has a very raucous laugh and she was laughing, and John was there with Gena and he was laughing. He had a very noticeable laugh. There were about 300 people and even though the picture had been working, you’re always nervous about it. I remember at one point in the picture, about halfway through, John just said, loud, “I can’t believe he’s doing this!” [laughs]… It made me very happy. That was the best review I ever got. Then we became more and more friendly and I remember he invited Cybill Shepherd and me to an early running of A Woman Under the Influence and we were just completely blown away by it.

In the late ’70s he asked me to direct Gloria. He wrote it and it was called One Winter Night or something, One Winter Day; it was an early title. We had a reading of the script. He asked me to be a part of it. He said, “You gotta direct this, you know how to do this picture.” I read the script and I said “You have to direct it, I’m not gonna direct it. You should do it. Have somebody buy it and you direct it.” He really wanted me to do it. I guess because of Paper Moon, which he liked. But he finally did it.

It was wonderful. I loved that movie. I didn’t see it when it was made because Dorothy was killed around that time. I didn’t see it for a number of years and then I finally saw it and it blew me away. It was one of John’s best. But Cassavetes was the first independent filmmaker and he led the way with Shadows and then Faces in ’68. That was really the beginning of the New Hollywood. So it’s correct that he’s the father of the New Hollywood. He is that. He’s the first one who said, “Let’s do it differently.” And he came just at the end of the studio system, just as it was falling apart. He was the voice of the American New Wave which became clear in the late ’60s with Faces and Bob Rafelson’s pictures [Five Easy Pieces]and mine [Targets, The Last Picture Show], that whole thing that happened around ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71. Then it was kind of over by ’75. Except for John. MM

John Gallagher is the award-winning director of We Remember, The Networker, Blue Moon (starring Ben Gazzara) and The Deli. His career interview with Bogdanovich appears in Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press, 2015).

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