Obituary: Peter Bogdanovich, 1939-2022

One of top “New Hollywood” directors of the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich, who started as a film journalist before moving into filmmaking in the late Sixties, died from complications of Parkinson’s disease in Los Angeles early Thursday morning. He was 82.

Born in Kingston, New York, the Oscar-nominated Bogdanovich’s resume includes nearly 20 theatrical features, alongside a handful of made-for-TV movies and television shows. He also amassed dozens of acting credits over the course of his career, including a recurring role on HBO’s The Sopranos. His final feature directing credit is the 2018 documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration, an appreciation of silent film legend Buster Keaton’s artistry and influence. It was produced by Cohen Media.

I spoke with Mr. Bogdanovich in the fall of 2018 about his final film, which is filled with the usual complement of clips, along with comments from nearly two dozen devotees, ranging from Mel Brooks to Quentin Tarantino, who are all eager to talk to Bogdanovich about their love of Keaton.

Never before published, here it is:

Disc Dish: The Great Buster was announced at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. How did it come about?

Peter Bogdanovich: Yes. Charles Cohen, whom I’ve known for a while, asked me if I was interested in possibly making documentary films on Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks. I quickly said yes and that we should start with Keaton. It was that simple.

DD: It’s only your second film in the past decade, the most recent being She’s Funny That Way in 2014 and before that the Tom Petty: Running down the Dream documentary from 2007. Why so long between projects?

PB: I’ve been working on a handful of projects for the past several years—television projects and features—and I’ve had to accommodate the development of those projects. And for the last few I’ve been working with Frank Marshall in finishing up Orson Welles’s last film, The Other Side of the Wind, which will premiere at [the 2018] Venice Film Festival. That’s been taking a lot of time.

DD: Your interviews with the great filmmakers have become the standard by which all others are measured, just as your 1971 doc Directed by John Ford is a landmark film-on-filmmaker portrait. What was it about Buster Keaton that inspired you embark on your second film on a filmmaker?

PB: I’ve always loved Buster Keaton—for me, he was always the most interesting of the silent comedians. I always regretted that I never met him—there are two people I’m sorry I never met: Keaton and Noel Coward. I had a chance to meet both of them and I blew it; I didn’t think they were going to die. He had a fascinating life and an amazing gift for comedy.

DD: How does one begin when taking on the monumental job of creating a 100-minute portrait of a legendary artist?

PB: I’ve read much about him over the years, and I re-read his 1960 autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. I also read a number of interviews with him and then we interviewed a bunch of people. I’ve made a number of documentaries and I have a rule of thumb—when you make a feature narrative film, you write the film and then you shoot it; when you make a documentary, you shoot it and then you write it, because you don’t know what you’ve got.

DD: There are nearly two dozen interviewees in the film, ranging from Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino and Johnny Knoxville to Werner Herzog, Bill Hader and Dick Van Dyke.

PB: We tried to get as broad a cross-section as we could with filmmakers, performers, friends.  Fans and experts and others who were influenced by Keaton or felt something special about him. There were some people that we tried to get but we couldn’t work it out, like Johnny Depp and Jackie Chan, whose work makes him a kind of modern Buster.

DD: At one point, Tarantino talks about how Keaton’s use of the camera was as important as the material and that the jokes worked because of the way he set up and used the camera.

PB: Absolutely. His mastery of the camera helped make the films as modern as they feel. Chaplin was always pretty dull camera-wise. Someone said to him, “Your camerawork is not very interesting, Charlie.” And his reply was, “It doesn’t have to be—I’m interesting.” But Buster had both going for him—he knew where to put the camera and he was always interesting and effective.

DD: In the film, you proceed with a traditional chronological narrative, but then, notably, you double back in the final third to cover Keaton’s golden period of feature films from 1923-29.

PB: That was an interesting decision we made. I thought that if we stick to a straight chronology, we’re not going to have the best stuff at the end. So I thought: We should leave the audience laughing, so let’s just skip the features and come back to them at the end. Buster was honored at the Venice Film Festival in 1965, a year before he died, and in the film that was our jumping off point to cover the features, and then we come back to Venice in the closing minutes. The business of putting the features at the end was the best idea I had on the whole documentary.

DD: Cohen Media owns the rights to the majority of the Keaton catalog of features, and the shorts as well, many of which have been restored or are in different stages of restoration.

PB: Oh yes. I watched them all, most at home on disc. Such an amazing legacy, and such a rich experience going through them all and deciding which would go into the film.

DD: You also include some marvelous footage of Buster’s later years—the commercials, the one-offs, the scene from the Becket short, the Canadian film, Candid Camera, the Beach Party movies. This was the least popular or arguably saddest time in his career.

PB: Yes, but he didn’t play it sad. They weren’t great times for Buster, and nothing could compare to his earlier triumphs, but he wasn’t destitute. I think he got through those years alright even though he wasn’t able to make his own films. That’s Hollywood.

DD: As a filmmaker, how has Keaton influenced personally your own films? What’s Up, Doc? immediately comes to mind.

PB: Well, sure! We did a chase sequence in What’s Up, Doc? which I’ve always said is my “Buster Keaton chase.” That was an expensive chase…

DD: When Ryan O’Neal is running down that San Francisco hill and jumps on Barbra Streisand’s speeding delivery bike—

PB: –That was very Keaton. Ryan actually hurt himself doing that.

DD: You never interviewed Keaton, as you said earlier, but if you could have, what would you have asked him?

PB: I’d probably ask him how he defines “funny.” To hear Buster Keaton describe how he gets to “funny” would certainly be worth knowing.

Buy or Rent The Great Buster: A Celebration


About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.