Peter Bogdanovich helped usher in a new era in Hollywood with “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon,” films that played homage to the movies from an earlier age, but movies that revolutionized the form with a fresh style and sexual frankness.
But many people recognize Bogdanovich not for his directing, but for his role as Elliot Kupferberg, the urbane, slightly inscrutable psychiatrist to whom Dr. Jennifer Melfi spills her own secrets on “The Sopranos.” Bogdanovich, who died Thursday at age 82, also directed a pivotal fifth season episode of the series, “Sentimental Education,” in which Carmela embarks on an affair with her son’s guidance counselor.
“The Sopranos” creator David Chase spoke with Variety about his long friendship with Bogdanovich and his appreciation for his work as an actor and an artist. Here are his (lightly) edited comments:
I met Peter after I took over a show called “Northern Exposure.” I was running it with Andy Schneider and Diane Frolov after [its creators] Joshua Brand and John Falsey left. There was a lot of talk going around in those days about genius, and I thought it would be a good idea to do something about a real genius and that was Orson Welles. So I called Peter and he appeared on the show as himself.
He played Peter Bogdanovich who was going to do a presentation about Orson Welles during the Cicely Alaska Film Festival, which is not a real thing. He was so great. He was so placid and so real, and he didn’t overdo it, which is something people tend to do when playing themselves. He also gave us a lot of information on Welles because they had been really good friends, sort of a mentor and mentee for years. I remember one time I told Peter that I had seen Welles once and he had looked sweet and Peter just looked at me with this expression of disbelief. So that saved us. We would have gone ahead with the sweet Welles, but we got rescued.
Then “Sopranos” came along and Melfi needed a therapist of her own and Peter just popped into my head automatically. He brought that bottle of water, which he always had with him when shooting or not shooting. He’d say something and then unscrew the top and take a gentlemanly sip and then go on with what he was going to say. That was Elliot Kupferberg, M.D.
It also worked because he and Lorraine Bracco [who played Melfi] are so different. He’s so canny and removed, just sort of sitting there with his hands in his lap, and she was not that kind of psychiatrist. He personified a scientific outlook.
He was frequently around the set and we had fun. We went out to dinner a lot, we drank a lot. He told great stories. You could hear them 10 or 12 times and it wouldn’t be enough. And he was a great mimic, so when he was voicing John Wayne or John Ford or Cary Grant, all of whom he knew, you’d get the whole person. It made you feel like you’d really missed out on something. You wished you’d been there.
At some point during his work as Kupferberg, he said “How would you feel about me directing an episode?” So he did “Sentimental Education.” I felt pretty secure. I knew he was a really good director. His directing style was a little bit different from the rest of the people that we had. He and I didn’t see eye to eye on some choices he had made in terms of coverage, but in the end it came out great. It was an important episode for us because it was all about Carmela having an affair.
I first became aware of David when I was going to NYU and I read his articles about film. He was so knowledgable. He wrote with such grace and finesse. I was jealous. I used to think, “Geez, you dumb shit, why can’t you write a simple letter like that?”
The first film I saw was “Targets” and I loved it. It was so well done and the stuff about him only having a few days to shoot Boris Karloff was legendary. And I really liked “Paper Moon” — the production design, its photography, the way he directed the actors, what he got from them. Another favorite picture of his was “Nickelodeon;” it took me right back to early Hollywood, which was something I was so interested in and had no connection to.
I didn’t quite understand “Last Picture Show.” Not that there was something wrong with the picture. I put this on myself because it happens to me fairly often. My wife will tell you that when we saw “Planet of the Apes” and the end came on, I said, “Oh, they had a Statue of Liberty too.”
He was always open and honest about his place in Hollywood and the studios and how they treated him and other people. I wish he’d made more pictures. I wish he’d had the opportunity to do more.
I know he will be regarded as one of the raging bulls from that era, not that he was a raging bull; he was anything but. And yet he was part of a whole new thing for Hollywood along with Scorsese and Coppola. You were seeing something different about what a movie could be. It was such a sea change. It was no longer all about biblical epics.
I don’t know how I feel about Peter being recognized [in obituary headlines] for his work in “Sopranos.” I’ve been pretty outspoken about my lack of regard for television or what television used to be and to think that this ultimate cinéaste is being remembered as the star of a TV show — well, what can you say? I am really glad that he was recognized for his acting, because he started out wanting to be an actor and he was a really good actor.
We had dinner a couple of months ago and I’m so glad we did. I had been living in New York and he was here in L.A. and the date kept shifting and we finally made it work. He didn’t seem to be in great shape. It was very emotional. I don’t mean that I was crying or anything, but you could see that we valued each other’s company and our effect on each other’s career.
This is a guy I’m really going to miss.