Director Peter Bogdanovich Becomes a Leading Man at 74 in 'Cold Turkey'

First-time filmmaker Will Slocombe and the "Last Picture Show" helmer discuss working together on the dysfunctional family drama.

Most people don’t think of director-writer-historian Peter Bogdanovich as an actor, but that’s how he began his career in the entertainment world. He studied with the famed acting coach Stella Adler in New York for four years before discovering one day during class that he had a knack for directing. “I got five actors together and directed a scene from The Big Knife,” Bogdanovich tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Stella was very impressed with what I did as a director, so I thought maybe I should direct the whole play and eventually got the rights from Clifford Odets to do an off-Broadway revival.”

From that point on, Bogdanovich had the directing bug and never looked back. Now, though, more than 50 years and two Oscar nominations later, Bogdanovich once again has a new movie opening -- but instead of his name being above the title, a large image of his face is directly below it. 

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Cold Turkey tells the story of the Turner family’s Thanksgiving: Poppy (Bogdanovich) greets his three adult children, all of whom arrive home with problems they are hoping their father can make disappear with his checkbook. Bogdanovich, who has mastered playing the role of the comically arrogant guest star, most notably as Dr. Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) therapist on The Sopranos, was not an obvious choice to play this larger-than-life patriarch, nor at 74 is he the age when most actors start landing leading roles. Yet anchoring this swirling dysfunctional dramedy is a subtle, laconic performance from Bogdanovich, who finds both humor and sadness behind every sip of wine as he watches his family unravel. 

Cold Turkey’s writer-director Will Slocombe got the idea to cast Bogdanovich when he watched him fill in as guest host for Charlie Rose: “He just had this incredible presence, this incredible stillness and deadpan humor.” The young filmmaker also admits to THR that he liked the idea of incorporating Bogdanovich’s public persona as an intellectual and his well-publicized, scandalous private life into the character of Poppy. (Bogdanovich left his wife for Cybill Shepherd, his 21-year-old Picture Show star; he later had an affair with Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy Playmate whose murder was dramatized in Star 80, and after her death, dated and married her teen sister, Louise Stratten.)

“The three things I thought Poppy needed to have were: One, authority and presence, for me this movie was basically about this hero, this patriarch getting brought down to size. Two, he needed to be intellectually a genius. You needed to believe he was a professor at Stanford, that he was a foreign policy expert. Three, he needed to have a reckless sexual history, and I thought Peter Bogdanovich. (Laughs.) He fits all three."

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Slocombe grew up a huge Bogdanovich fan. “The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon are two of my all-time favorites,” both of which were made a decade before the 29-year-old director was born.  Asked if it was hard to direct his filmmaking hero, Slocombe says, “There were definitely some trying moments. Peter, though, to his immense credit, said in our first meeting, ‘When I'm acting in a movie I'm strictly acting, I'm not thinking as a director. It just makes my life harder.’ ”

Bogdanovich says he actively avoids mentoring while on-set, but admits there are times he can’t turn off the directing part of his brain. “If I think the camera is in the wrong place for the scene, I may say something, as I did with Will occasionally.”  Slocombe adds, “He'd always tell me, “Oh Will, you're not going to use that shot.’ The first couple days it was a little dicey, but that very quickly evaporated and I think he respected me for having written the script.”

It was that script that won the young director credibility with the celebrated auteur, and that's also what got Bogdanovich to agree to take the role: “He felt like he really existed," says Bogdanovich. "It felt like the writer was writing from a real place and understanding. Will was obviously part of this family upbringing and that lent a tremendous air of reality and credibility to the whole thing.”  Slocombe insists the film is fiction, but says he did draw upon his real family dynamics, including his two older sisters (played in Cold Turkey by Alicia Witt and Sonya Walger) and his father, who is a foreign policy expert like the Poppy character.  

Bogdanovich, who is currently editing his latest directorial effort, Squirrels to the Nuts (starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston), says he’s finding acting a welcome break from the rigors of filmmaking: “It sounds glib to say acting is easier, but you don't have to worry about schedules or other actors, you don't have to worry about other things besides acting.”