Peter Bogdanovich is often held up as a cautionary tale of Hollywood arrogance, Icarus with big frames and a neckerchief. In a hurry since adolescence, at 16 he talked his way into acting classes with Stella Adler; at 20, he persuaded Clifford Odets to let him direct one of his plays Off Broadway; and he went on to befriend and write about the golden-age movie directors he idolized, like Orson Welles and John Ford. As soon as Bogdanovich became a director in his own right, his self-assurance didn’t endear him to some of the town’s young auteurs or old legends. “I don’t judge myself on the basis of my contemporaries,” he told the New York Times in 1971. “I judge myself against the directors I admire — Hawks, Lubitsch, Buster Keaton, Welles, Ford, Renoir, Hitchcock. I certainly don’t think I’m anywhere near as good as they are, but I think I’m pretty good.” And so, as the story goes, Bogdanovich directed two arguably perfect films, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, along with the hit screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, only to see his career run aground after a series of flops. But contrary to the legend, Bogdanovich never disappeared or stewed in defeat for long, and he has enjoyed no fewer than three critically hailed comebacks with Saint Jack (1979), Mask (1985), and Cat’s Meow (2002), as well as significant late-career success as a documentarian, as with 2007’s Tom Petty documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream. Bogdanovich has also shown himself to be a surprisingly supple actor in such roles as The Sopranos’ shrink-to-the-shrink, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, and Netflix recently released a completed version of Welles’s long-unfinished The Other Side of the Wind, in which Bogdanovich, in the thick of his ’70s success, played a version of himself named Brooks Otterlake, a role Welles wrote to explore the fraught Oedipal themes of their own relationship. Now 79, Bogdanovich is noticeably frail as he recovers from a fall he suffered while at a French film festival, where he collected a lifetime-achievement award; he shattered his left femur. We talk at a cluttered dining-room table in the modest ground-floor Toluca Lake apartment he shares with his ex-wife Louise Stratten and her mother. Mid-interview, a diminutive, grandmotherly woman with a Dutch accent sneaks behind him through the tight dining room on her way to the kitchen. Bogdanovich motions at my copy of The Killing of the Unicorn, the book he wrote about the 1980 murder of his then-girlfriend, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, Louise’s sister. “Hide that book, will you?” he requests. “That is Dorothy’s mother.” Nelly Hoogstraten appears several more times: to deliver him pills, to ask if he’d like her to make coffee, to see when he’d like his dinner. “Thank you, darling,” he answers every time.
You grew up in New York. Your father was a painter. I understand there was something peculiar about his hair.
It grew upwards for some reason. Strange. He didn’t trust shampoo, so he used Listerine to clean his hair. It looked all right. It’s an antiseptic, you know?
I read something about your mother and I didn’t know whether it could possibly be true. Did you have a brother die before you were born?
Yeah. I didn’t even know about any of it until I was about 7. I was in the room of the apartment where my father painted. I saw a sketchy painting of a young boy with blond hair, and I said, “Who’s that?” And he said, “That’s your brother.” I said, “My brother?” “Yes, he died.” And he didn’t say much else. My mother never spoke of him. Years later, toward the end of my mother’s life, I interviewed her about things and I asked her about this tragedy. She told me about it, but it was very difficult for her to talk about even then. She got choked up and she couldn’t go on. I was born into that tragedy, actually.
Was it an accident?
It was a kitchen accident. She was boiling some soup and the kid got near the soup and she got scared and she went to try to stop him from touching the soup and the soup fell on him and he died of shock. I don’t know how they survived that moment. It happened I think in 1938. The kid was a year and a half old.
I cannot even imagine.
Terrible. Neither of them ever quite got over it. I think she was a good mother. She was warm, but she was not cuddly. She was a bit distant that way.
Was it the same apartment where you grew up?
No, it was in the former Yugoslavia. It happened in the old country, and then she got pregnant with me right after that. She was pregnant on the ship when they came over to America.
Is your father’s work collectible?
Yeah, you should go to the internet and look up Borislav Bogdanovich. My sister did a whole website and you see a lot of great paintings. He was a really great painter and very highly praised in the former Yugoslavia. But he gave all that up to save my mother and her family because they were Jewish. He wasn’t, but they were. So he got visitors’ visas for my mother and him and her immediate family and they all came over in ’39 for the World’s Fair in New York. That was the ostensible reason, yeah. But my father felt the war was coming.
The first thing I noticed when rewatching The Last Picture Show was how many great roles there are for women in it. Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, and Cloris Leachman are all so amazing. You just don’t see many films that have so many great female parts.
Well, that’s true.
Do you think you’re a good director of women?
Well, I like women. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at women. I never thought of it that way. Cloris was great, and I had told her she had a chance of winning the Oscar for this part. She kept saying, “I want to rehearse that last scene with you.” I said, “No, I don’t want to see it.” I wanted it to be fresh to me. She could rehearse it a hundred times, but I didn’t want to see it until the end. We did the scene, and what you see is that first take.
At that point, you had directed only Targets, a low-budget film nobody had seen. When you say to established actors, “This is going to win you an Oscar,” do they look at you like you have three heads?
It was fairly calculated. Like Ben Johnson, Cloris had been around for years. Everybody in town knew them and liked them, but they never had a great part. So I just thought that they might win an Oscar, and they did.
Then the film comes out and Newsweek calls it “the most impressive work by a young American director since Citizen Kane.”
Orson sent me a telegram around that time. He said, “Reading your reviews is like opening presents at Christmas.”
For Welles, the critical reception of Kane as possibly the finest American movie ever made became a kind of millstone around his neck.
He had a tough time. He just wanted to make another picture; he didn’t want to think about the past. He told me that Billy Rose, the producer, saw Kane and said to him, “Quit, kid, you’ll never top it.”
Do you feel like having this universal praise of The Last Picture Show was a curse the same way it was for Welles?
No. The thing is Orson never had a successful movie except for the notices on Citizen Kane. I’ve had a number of them.
You began an affair with Cybill Shepherd during the filming of The Last Picture Show.
You know, it’s a funny story. We talked about this recently, Cybill and I. I was very attracted to her. The first shot in the movie theater, when she comes up the aisle and in her close-up she says, “What are y’all doing back here in the dark?” — just before that, we had been sitting in the theater, and she was in the row ahead of me. I said to her, “I don’t know who I want to sleep with more, you or [Shepherd’s character] Jacy.” She actually blushed, and they said, “Okay, we’re ready, Cybill,” and that shot was done right after that moment.
Were you trying to elicit a performance or were you wooing her?
That was definitely a pass.
She had been dating Jeff Bridges.
Yeah. Subsequent to that [scene], Jeff went and had a week of military training. You would take a week or two weeks in training in lieu of being drafted. So after he left, I said to Cybill, “You’re going to be alone for a while. Jeff’s leaving.” She said, “I’m always alone.” I thought, That’s definitely a hint.
There seem to be echoes of your own life in the movie: Bridges and Timothy Bottoms compete for Shepherd in the film. So Jeff comes back and basically one of the movie’s plotlines is playing out on set.
Yeah. I think she told him that she was seeing me. I remember having a conversation with Jeff near the bus, for some reason. I remember Cybill sticking her head out the window of it to hear what we were saying. Jeff was saying, “Be careful.”
He’s not saying, “I hate your guts”?
No, no, he didn’t make an issue about it at all.
From a practical standpoint, how do you manage to have an affair with an actress while your wife, Polly Platt, is the production designer on the film?
It wasn’t easy. Polly figured it out and moved out of our suite. She sort of left it at, “You deal with it,” as though it was an issue, which it was. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Cybill and I kept saying this was just during the picture. We were not going to be going out after the movie’s over. But we fell in love.
Was Polly distraught?
No, no, she thought it would be over when the movie was over. I did too, so did Cybill. But when we got back to our lives, we just couldn’t stop seeing each other. We met at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood. I told Polly that I was going away for a few days to spend some time thinking, and Cybill and I spent the weekend at the Holiday Inn. She got me stoned for the first time.
What’d you think?
It was one of the great experiences of my life.
You were a little square, weren’t you?
Yeah. Bert Schneider, who was heavily into drugs, and Bob Rafelson and all those guys [at BBS Productions] were definitely into grass. They offered it to me, and I’d say, “No, no, I don’t do that.” They talked about not doing [The Last Picture Show] with me because I’m square. Then I not only got stoned but I had an affair and left my wife. So I wasn’t square after all. You know the story about when Cybill came to audition for me? I came to New York to interview some actors, and one of them was Cybill because I had seen her on the cover of Glamour and I thought I’d like to meet her.
In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind writes that it was Polly who had spotted Cybill on Glamour.
She takes credit for that, it’s bullshit.
Why would she want to take credit? It totally destabilized her life.
She took credit for things she had nothing to do with. What happened was I went to a supermarket to get some toothpicks because I was trying to quit smoking cigarettes, so I would just chew toothpicks. So at the checkout, there was a copy of Glamour, a magazine I had never heard of. On the cover was this girl, and she had a shirt on that said I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU. But I thought to myself the look on her face belies the sentiment. She doesn’t look like she really loves me in the picture. So I bought the magazine and gave it to my assistant Mae Woods, and I said, “Find out who this girl is, would you?” She was Cybill Shepherd. She gave it to me typed out, and I thought “Cybill” spelled C-Y-B-I-L-L is a bit much.
Polly also said that it was her, not you, whom Sal Mineo had given a copy of The Last Picture Show and that you hadn’t actually read the novel before production was green-lit.
Oh, that’s bullshit. Sal gave the book to me after three people gave me the same fucking book. I said to Polly, “Why don’t you read this and tell me what it’s sort of saying.” And then she read it and said, “It’s a very good book, but I don’t know how you’d make it as a picture.” That was what happened. The script was based on the book. How could I write the script with Larry [McMurtry] unless I read the book?
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls really leaves readers with the impression that Polly was almost an equal collaborator, that she was instrumental in your first three films, which were all successes.
That’s the impression she’d like to give.
She died in 2011, so we can’t hear her version of it. But you’ve obviously heard this before.
Yeah, she lied. She did earn a lot of credit, but she didn’t direct anything. She was very fun to bounce things off of and had good ideas.
Is it true you were offered both The Godfather and The Exorcist?
And The Way We Were. And Chinatown. And just about everything. I was hot.
Do you regret turning them down?
No, I didn’t feel I made a mistake. Paramount called and said, “We just bought a new Mario Puzo book called The Godfather. We’d like you to consider directing it.” I said, “I’m not interested in the Mafia.”
William Friedkin once said that casting Shepherd in the movies after The Last Picture Show was a huge mistake. That she didn’t have the acting ability and that you had somehow lost your mind. He called you “pussy-struck.”
No, he said “pussy-struck.”
That’s a crude way of putting it. She’s very good in the pictures we did together. She’s very good in Daisy Miller, which got great reviews. They were pissed off that I was having an affair with her. I’ve seen pictures of us; I look like an arrogant, attractive guy, and she looks like a sexy girl. And we were rich and we were famous and we did movies together. Sometime in the mid-’70s, when we were getting terrible press, Cary Grant called me. He says, “Peter, will you for Christ’s sake stop telling people you’re happy. And stop telling them you’re in love.” I said, “Why, Cary?” “Because they’re not happy and they’re not in love.” He was right.
Didn’t the two of you pose for the cover of People?
We were also on the cover of Los Angeles magazine, where she was sticking her tongue out at the camera. I showed Orson a copy of People and he leafed through it and said, “I don’t know if I like this.”
He thought it was dangerous. Because people hated me for it.
Welles was living in your house in Bel-Air around then. You had 7,000 square feet, so obviously you had room for him.
He had his own wing. Do you know the story about when Cybill smelled smoke? She was walking past Orson’s wing, and she said, “Orson, I smell something burning. Are you all right?” He said, “Privacy, please!” So later on, the housekeeper said, “Mr. B? Mr. Welles had an accident.” She holds up this white terrycloth robe with a big burn hole. It turned out he’d been smoking a cigar and he put it in the pocket, not realizing it was still lit, and the robe caught on fire. He took it off and threw it in the bathtub but missed the bathtub and it burned some of the carpeting in the bathroom. He said he would fix it and he never did, but it doesn’t matter. Orson was a lot of fun to be around a lot of the time.
He was particularly heavy then. Was he a stress eater?
I don’t know. He was compulsive. One time, we had just had dinner and were sitting in the breakfast room and I said, “Who wants dessert?” “I do,” he says. So I go into the kitchen and I open up the freezer and there had been four quarts of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and now there was one. And I opened it up and it was like that much [indicates a half-inch smidgen with his fingers] at the bottom. I went to the other room and said, “Somebody ate all the ice cream.” And he says [makes guilty look], “I didn’t.”
You ended up living with Quentin Tarantino in the 2000s.
I was living in his guesthouse for about a year, maybe more. He was very nice. Very sweet. He invited me over and I said okay. I was having some problems. I didn’t have a house or something.
Did you watch a lot of movies with him? His taste is a bit out there.
Yes, he was a little odd. He wanted to look at a lot of movies, so I sat with him. He fell in love with a director named William Witney who made some Lone Ranger movies or something. Not my cup of tea, but I liked being with Quentin. He was fun. Loves They All Laughed. I sat next to him when he screened it in his projection room for a whole audience. He was quoting the lines before they would happen. Finally, I said, “Quentin, would you cut it out?” He knew every line in the picture. Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach love it too. They call me “Pop,” and I allow it.
So why did you and Cybill break up?
Well, I was screwing around in Singapore during Saint Jack, and she came to visit and she got what was going on.
You and Ben Gazzara, who played Jack, saw a lot of prostitutes there. How did that work?
We’d invite them over. Benny would call them out there: “Mama, send over two girls.” We did that a lot. The book was all about a pimp and trying to start a whorehouse. And the trouble was, there were no women characters in the book [by Paul Theroux]. So we had to put in some female characters. So we started seeing hookers to talk to them about it.
And sleep with them?
Was Ben married?
Yeah, he was married. But I think Ben was always fucking around. I don’t think he needed a picture to do it.
Did you pay them?
Yeah. I got off the plane and said to the cabdriver, “Where can I get some girls?” And he said, “I’ll take you.” And he took me to a whorehouse and they lined up a bunch of girls for me, about ten, and I picked one. This girl was very sweet and she told me her story, which was sad. They all had sad stories. I felt bad for her and I gave her $5,000 to go home, and she did. The last thing she said to me when she was leaving the room was “I look for you in Bangkok.” That was where she was going. And I used that line in the picture.
Saint Jack is a very good movie. But it’s not one you could make today.
There’s no ambivalence about how the sex trade is portrayed, no sense that there is any sort of exploitation of these women. Jack’s good to them, he protects them, but there’s no grappling with how sad it is that these women left their homes to fuck fat guys in Singapore.
Yeah, well, I know what you mean. I think the fact that Jack was very kind to the girls, that he tried to create an atmosphere that was chic and elegant and pleasant, makes the thing palatable. I didn’t want to get into the grim part about hookers, because it wasn’t grim with him. That was why they call him “Saint Jack.”
So how did Cybill catch you?
Cybill came to visit, and I think she picked up on the fact that I was having an affair with Monika Subramaniam, who played the leading girl. After Cybill got me stoned for the first time, it increased everything and I thought, Jesus Christ, sex is suddenly different than I ever thought it could be. So after that, I didn’t wanna be alone anymore. So I found somebody to be with if Cybill couldn’t be there. I got home from Singapore thinking Cybill and I were still together, and she basically left the next day. She got very upset and left. I remember throwing a glass ashtray down on the ground that shattered. She went home and had an affair with this guy in Memphis and got pregnant. I was very upset about it. I wrote the first draft of They All Laughed, and the John Ritter character spends the entire picture mooning about a girl he had lost.
What happened in Singapore is interesting because in your most recent movie, 2014’s She’s Funny That Way, Owen Wilson plays a director, the hero of the film, who sleeps with a call girl, played by Imogen Poots, and immediately gives her $30,000 to never have sex for money again.
That’s where the idea came from. I did that to two or three girls in Singapore, gave them five or ten grand if they promised they’d stop being hookers and go home.
In the movie, Poots’s character seems to truly enjoy the sex. Do you think prostitutes ever enjoy the sex?
If it’s good.
Oh, come on. Really?
You don’t think it’s just an acting role for them?
Maybe. Maybe. But I don’t think so.
I think the saddest moment in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making of Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, is the clip from the late ’70s in which Welles and Burt Reynolds, who is guest-hosting The Tonight Show, make light of how your career had gone south. There seems to be a little bit of Schadenfreude coming from both of them.
I wrote Orson a note, actually, after seeing the Burt Reynolds moment on The Tonight Show, saying, “I tuned in last night to see what you and Burt were thinking, and I guess I found out. Love, Peter.” A few days later, I got a letter from him, which had two letters in an envelope. One was a long apology, that it was a betrayal, and he was very sorry. The other was a short note that said, “You deserved it,” basically. He said take your pick.
I can understand the apology. But why would you have “deserved it”?
He was jealous, I guess. I had never done anything against him.
I assumed you loved him.
I loved Orson. And I think he loved me too, actually. I liked Burt, too, but he was his own worst enemy in a way.
In one of Reynolds’s memoirs, he wrote about your musical, At Long Lost Love, and how you shot the numbers live. He said he had to sing and dance as though it were a Broadway show and it was going to be one take.
One shot, yeah.
He wrote that, as a non-trained dancer and singer, it put a lot of pressure on him.
He could have turned it down. You’re going to accept it, then shut up.
He wrote that he was loaded through the whole picture.
It’s not true? He said he was drinking vodka–and–orange juice.
Maybe, but it didn’t show. He was all right when we were shooting. But I do remember one moment on [1976 comedy] Nickelodeon when I knew he wanted to hit me. He did a thing with a rifle — he pulls it out — and I said, “That was a little Burt Reynolds, wasn’t it?” He looked at me like he wanted to punch me out.
He wrote that he didn’t like your habit of giving actors line readings.
And he did them all — I gave him the line reading, he’d do it.
He wrote that he said, “I don’t know if I can do it that badly, but I’ll try.”
That’s bullshit. [Barbra] Streisand, I’d give Streisand 99 out of 100. She did everything I asked her to do. And she was fun to work with. Burt was a bit of a prick.
So who was the most difficult actor you’ve ever worked with?
Tell me about your experience with her on Mask.
Well, she didn’t trust anybody, particularly men. She doesn’t like men. That’s why she’s named Cher: She dropped her father’s name. Sarkisian, it is. She can’t act. She won Best Actress at Cannes because I shot her very well.
And she can’t sustain a scene. She couldn’t do what Tatum [O’Neal] did in Paper Moon. She’d start off in the right direction, but she’d go off wrong somehow, very quickly. So I shot a lot of close-ups of her because she’s very good in close-ups. Her eyes have the sadness of the world. You get to know her, you find out it’s self-pity, but still, it translates well in movies. I shot more close-ups of her than I think in any picture I ever made.
You can create an award-winning performance with close-ups?
Oh yes, you can. I did a number of times.
What did Cher think of you?
Cher doesn’t like me.
Well, because I didn’t like her. She was always looking like someone was cheating her. I came to the set one day; I said, “You depress me, you’re always so down and acting like somebody’s stealing from you or something.” But finally, after about seven weeks of this, we started getting to like each other. She said, you know, we don’t watch out, we might end up liking each other. I said that would be amazing. And we did end up liking each other, and then when I sued the studio, she sided with the studio, of course. That was that.
You sued the studio because it replaced Bruce Springsteen’s songs in the movie with Bob Seger’s.
Oh, the original ending was “The Promised Land,” by Springsteen. It was fucking dynamite. Bruce was the hottest thing going. At that point, Born in the USA was the most successful album in the history of albums. The movie had been set up at Universal by the previous regime, and [Universal president] Frank fucking Price, piece of shit, had a movie that he’d put together called Out of Africa, which maybe is the most boring film ever produced with Meryl Streep and Bob Redford.
Didn’t she get an Oscar for it?
She gets Oscars for everything. It was a boring picture. So Frank Price wanted to make sure that Out of Africa got a lot of attention and Mask as little as possible. So he insisted on taking that music out.
Considering all that you’d been through, was it a good idea to sue the studio?
That was a very bad idea. I shouldn’t have done that, but I did because I was so pissed off.
What did you sue for?
For fucking up my picture.
Is that the legal term?
Yeah, fucking up my picture. Taking out the music and taking out the sequences.
What became of the suit?
It was dropped.
Did suing Universal make it more difficult to work in the studio system?
I don’t think I made another picture for three years, almost.
The casting of They All Laughed blows my mind. You had your former girlfriends Colleen Camp and Patti Hansen in major roles and began an affair with Dorothy Stratten, whom you’d met at the Playboy Mansion and cast in the film.
We didn’t actually have an affair until after the picture started shooting. We just kissed. It’s called getting to know your actors. Colleen was somewhere after Polly and Cybill. I’d seen Colleen in a bathing suit in a Benson & Hedges ad, and I said to Frank Marshall, “See if you can find that girl.” When Cybill and I broke up, we had a brief thing. With Patti, it was a quick affair for a month or two before we shot They All Laughed. I saw her on the cover of a magazine — Esquire, I think — and I wanted to meet her. We were very attracted to each other. I liked her a lot, but I wasn’t in love with her and she wasn’t in love with me. It was just so complicated during that time period.
Did you like the idea of casting all these women you’d been involved with? There’s kind of a screwball aspect to it.
There is a screwball aspect. Also we wrote the parts for them because I knew them. I thought it would work, and it did. And Colleen and Dorothy became very close on the picture. Patti was jealous of Dorothy. But Dorothy and John Ritter got along wonderfully. John was one of my dearest friends.
It was so sad when he died.
So sad. I was with him the day before. He had asked me to act a part in his new series that he was doing, 8 Simple Rules. He loaned me a lot of money when I needed it after They All Laughed: $350,000. He didn’t ask if I needed the money.
Dorothy was murdered by her estranged husband, Paul Snider, while you were editing the film. In it, John Ritter pursues Dorothy, who’s married to a guy she’s obviously not in love with, and they fall for each other. You based that on your own situation, right?
Yeah, yeah. Based on the outlines of her situation. I didn’t know the real story about it, though. I never met him, I never even saw him. Never in the same room with him, even. And I didn’t know what he was like.
I know it’s probably difficult to talk about all this, but had Dorothy lived and had that movie come out and even if she had divorced her husband, don’t you think he might have been appalled to see his wife onscreen betraying him in a kind of comedic way?
He knew about us for months. That wasn’t the problem. That wasn’t what caused the murder. And she went to see him about a week before that and had a nice time with him. Not nice — she said he was sad, that he was very sweet to her, and he introduced her to some girl he was dating I think he was going to bring over to the Playboy Mansion or something. And then Hefner barred him from the Mansion.
You don’t think getting barred from the Mansion might just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back? He must have been enraged to learn about the affair.
He knew about that affair for a long time. He never did anything about it. The Mansion was his bread and butter. The murder was caused because Hefner banned him from the Mansion.
The book you wrote afterward, The Killing of the Unicorn, puts the responsibility for her death squarely on Hugh Hefner’s shoulders.
It was all him because, first of all, he raped her.
Hefner denied that. In your book, you wrote that Snider had told Dorothy, when Playboy first came calling and she initially went to L.A. to meet the Playboy people, that she might have to sleep with this guy but not to worry about it.
Yeah, she did say that. She told me that. She didn’t want to, but she was put in a position where she had to. It wasn’t violent. It was just, she had no other choice, I guess.
Because of what you wrote about the culture of Playboy, you were described as a feminist.
Well, I was. I became one. I hadn’t been before.
Hefner was apparently very much affected by this book. He held a press conference in which he said the book had caused him to have a stroke.
Well, I destroyed him. I destroyed the whole Playboy myth — which, by the way, was a myth. The so-called sexual revolution of the late ’50s and ’60s was just another way of making it easier for guys to get laid. They weren’t feminists. It was just another way of getting laid faster.
But you were a beneficiary, no?
I guess I was to a degree, yeah.
You never would have met Dorothy had you not been hanging out at the Mansion, right?
Yeah, Dorothy said that. And I said, “We would’ve met sometime.” But she was right.
Were you depressed after this?
Terribly fucked up. More fucked up than I’ve ever been in my life. You know, when Dorothy was killed, nobody called me from Hollywood. Nobody except the people working the picture who knew her or something like that. Nobody called me except Cary Grant. Cary was very sweet.
I’d assumed you’d been showered with flowers.
Didn’t want to touch it. Murder. After she was killed, I didn’t go out much. Then one day, about six months after it happened, I went to a dentist appointment. As I’m leaving the dentist, who’s coming up the street but Billy Wilder. I said, “Hi, Billy.” He says, “Hi.” Without even a blink, he says, “You know that whole story about the girl that got murdered? The plot is not right. It should be how … ” and he starts telling me how to fix the plot of the story of Dorothy’s murder.
That might be the most fucked-up thing I’ve ever heard.
Yeah, I know. This is beyond German bad taste. It’s just unbelievable bad taste. I just nodded.
Apparently, after the premiere of At Long Last Love, which went very badly, Wilder said you could hear the Champagne corks popping all over town. What was his deal?
He was jealous. I was young and successful. He was old and hadn’t made a picture and I hadn’t written about him or done any pieces praising him. He managed to fuck up two pictures I was going to do. One was Private Lives. The executives asked him what he thought of the idea. He said, “Bad idea.” That was the end of that. You know what he did when Tony Curtis’s son died of an overdose? He sent him a telegram saying, “Like father, like son.”
Do you like burying assholes? When you see your enemies’ obituaries, what do you think?
Well, I wasn’t unhappy when Billy died.
What about when Hef died?
Oh boy, I had a celebration then. He was a piece of shit.
After that, you had some major financial troubles, starting when you bought back They All Laughed from the studio.
I just blew it. Because I was so depressed. I just didn’t give a shit. I wanted to die in some way. I wanted to forget it. Just end it all. Everyone said to me, “Don’t do this. Don’t buy the picture.” You can’t self-distribute. They’ll fuck you every time if they can. I just said, “Fuck you. I don’t care.” I mortgaged my house. Blew $5 million. It was all I had.
It must have been hard to leave that house in Bel-Air.
Yeah. Louise and I still talk about it. It was a nice house.
Who’s there now?
I know Diane Keaton bought the house and redid it and foo-foo’ed it up and kind of ruined it. She owned it for a while, and then she sold it. I don’t know who owns it now.
They All Laughed got some good reviews. But regardless of the quality of the movie, did you anticipate it was going to be hard to market a comedy introducing an actress who’d just been murdered?
Yes. In fact, I didn’t think it would do well. And when it [failed], I thought, Our child is dead too.
I know you weren’t excited about the movies that came out about the murder, particularly Bob Fosse’s Star 80.
I called Bob and I said, “Is it true you’re making a movie about Dorothy?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, why are you doing that?” He said, “Well, we think it’s a good story.” I said, “How the fuck do you know what the story is? I don’t know what the story is.” “Well, it’s not about you; it’s about her.” I said, “I don’t care if it’s about me. I don’t give a shit about that. Let me just put it this way, Bob. If it had happened to you, I wouldn’t do a movie about it.” The movie didn’t do well, and it was the last picture he did. He shouldn’t have done it. It killed him.
He died four years later in 1987. His career died, and then he died.
Pretty much, yeah. I remember I had to go see it because Nelly was portrayed in the movie. They didn’t use my name, so I had nothing to say. I went to see it for legal reasons and it was horrible. Sitting there in Warner Bros.’ screening by myself, and the first time I appear on the screen, under a different name, he says to Dorothy, “Well, do you know anything about me?” I thought to myself, Okay, Bob, I get it. You’re a fucking asshole too. Jealous, envious, fuck them all.
What did Orson say about Dorothy?
Nothing. I never spoke to Orson about it. I wasn’t talking to Orson much then. I talked to him later, about a week and a half, two weeks before he died in ’85. I said, “Jesus, Orson, I feel like I made so many mistakes.” And he said, “Well, it does seem difficult to go through life without making a great many of them,” which was our way of rekindling our friendship. That was the last time we spoke.
What do you think the mistakes were?
A lot. I should’ve known more about a lot of things, but I didn’t know things. I just, I don’t know. It’s too sad to talk about.
Is the trauma of Dorothy’s death something you still live with?
In a way, yeah. You don’t get over a thing like that, you know. I got a bad case of PTSD. So does Louise. So does Nelly.
Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, and mother, Nelly, sued Hefner because in 1985 he said you’d had an affair with Louise beginning when she was 13. He also claimed you’d had an affair with Nelly.
After the murder, people were looking for anything they could say against me. So they said I’d had an affair with her mother, which was ridiculous.
In 1989, when People magazine put you on the cover, you were treated like a pervert.
Yeah. “A Tale of Two Sisters.” Dorothy introduced me to Louise on New Year’s Day 1980. We call it our anniversary, when we met. She was 11 and a half. It’s very funny because I wanted to get rid of her, because I didn’t know Dorothy was bringing her over.
You and Louise married in 1988. So when did you fall in love?
Sometime in there. It’s like a shipwreck. We both ended up hanging on to the same piece of driftwood, and we saw that we loved each other.
Did it freak out your kids that you married a woman you’d met when she was 11 and a half?
No. They liked her too.
You divorced in 2001. Why did you break up?
Well, you know, she was about 20 when we got married. She needed to see the world out there. I’d tried to save her from the male shits in her world by marrying her. And she came to understand that.
So she wanted to sow her oats?
I think so.
It seems like it’s a running theme in your life, saving people.
Saving people, yeah. Maybe it is. Hadn’t thought of it that way.
So you’re not married to Louise, but you live together here along with her mother.
I bought this apartment for Louise a while ago and she lived here. I was staying at Brett Ratner’s guesthouse for about two years, and then I moved back in here. Now I’m looking for a house.
Brett Ratner’s? Really?
Yeah, it was very sweet of him because I was between pictures and didn’t know where to go exactly. He said, “Do you want to stay at my place?” I said yeah. So I left here and went there. Now I’m back here. I was in an adjacent bungalow. He’d come down and introduce people to me all the time, call me his roommate. He was a very nice guy.
Were you there when the L.A. Times did a huge story that accused him of a range of sexual abuses?
Well, I was there for some of that, yeah. But I didn’t really talk to him much about it.
Do you have any more love affairs in you?
No. Just happy to be with Louise. I like her. I love her and her mother, I love them both, and we like being with each other. She’s the only person I care about that way. It’s like the song from Pal Joey: “We’ve separate bedrooms comme il faut / There’s one for play and one for show / You chase me / In our little den of iniquity.” It’s a great song. We have separate bedrooms. We don’t fuck around.
*This article appears in the March 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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