Peter Bogdanovich Recalls "Horrified" Local Reaction to Texas-Set 'Last Picture Show'

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Cybill Shepherd (left) with director Peter Bogdanovich on the set of 1971's 'The Last Picture Show'

The legendary auteur, 80, stopped by The Hollywood Reporter's 'It Happened in Hollywood' podcast to reveal all about the making of his 1971 classic.

Legendary director Peter Bogdanovich stopped by the It Happened in Hollywood podcast to share stories about the making of 1971's The Last Picture Show. The tale of a small Texas town in the 1950s was nominated for eight Oscars and won two, for supporting turns by Cloris Leachman, now 93, and the late Ben Johnson.

Bogdanovich, 80, said the milieu, based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, was completely alien to him, having grown up in New York and moved in mostly intellectual circles, where he feasted on a diet of classic cinema. 

"I thought that was because it was a foreign land to me, I could do an interesting job," he said. "Because everything was fresh to me. 'Peanut pattie.' I'd never had a peanut pattie. A lot of things in Texas were just weird." (A Texas treat, peanut patties are sweet disks of peanuts and congealed corn syrup dyed a dusty pink.)

Shot in black and white, Picture Show was an ensemble piece that introduced filmgoers to a number of major future stars, including a young Jeff Bridges, then 21, and Cybill Shepherd, then 20. 

Bogdanovich and Shepherd fell in love during the filming, leading the director to leave then-wife Polly Platt, the film's production designer. Asked how that development complicated his life, Bogdanovich replied, "A lot. It still is." Platt died in 2011 at age 72, having developed ALS.

Picture Show was shot in McMurtry's birthplace of Archer City, Texas, a tiny town of about 2,000 residents that stood in for the book's fictional Thalia. According to Bogdanovich, locals there considered McMurtry an author of "dirty books. And Picture Show was a dirty book, they thought."

"There's a brief scene in the picture where Sonny [played by Timothy Bottoms] is in the classroom and he looks out the window and sees a couple of dogs sniffing around each other," Bogdanovich remembers. "We had this big arc lights pointing at these dogs sniffing around, and they were fucking, and people driving by would see huge spotlights on these two dogs going at it. They were horrified: 'What's he shooting?'"

To cast the key role of Sam "the Lion," a respected elder cowboy who runs the local pool hall, Bogdanovich cast a wide net.

"The Academy used to publish big fat books of character actors," he recalled. "I was looking in one of those books and I came across Ben Johnson. And I thought, 'Ben Johnson! … He'd be perfect!'"

But Johnson, a world-champion rodeo cowboy turned movie star, wasn't interested: "He turned it down three times. I said, 'Why don't you want to do it, Ben?' 'Well Pete, too many words. Too many words, Pete.'"

Bogdanovich enlisted the legendary director John Ford, whom he knew, to convince Johnson. "Ford said, 'Oh, Jesus, Ben always says that. When we did Yellow Ribbon he came on the set and said to the script girl, 'Any words for me?' If she said yes, he'd sulk. If she said he just had to ride his horse, he'd be happy,'" Bogdanovich recalled Ford saying.

Ten minutes after putting in a call to Johnson at his home in Tucson, Arizona, Ford called Bogdanovich back.

"'He'll do it.'"

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For much more from Peter Bogdanovich on the making of The Last Picture Show, listen to the episode of It Happened in Hollywood and be sure to subscribe.