Haunted by a Lost Love, Director Peter Bogdanovich Pays Tribute with a New Film

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

They all laughed, assuming Hollywood history was merely repeating itself, when director Peter Bogdanovich took on Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, then 19, as his new protégée. In 1971 Bogdanovich had left his two kids and wife of 10 years to live with Cybill Shepherd, the blond model he discovered and used to decorate his breakthrough film, The Last Picture Show. By 1978 Cybill had traded Peter for marriage to a onetime Memphis auto dealer. Stratten, a former Dairy Queen waitress from Vancouver, seemed her logical successor. Gossips speculated that a smitten Bogdanovich, then 40, would use Stratten to revive his flagging career just as Shepherd had helped launch it. Peter gave Dorothy a fat role in his $8.6 million romantic comedy They All Laughed, co-starring Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara and John Ritter. During filming, Peter and Dorothy fell in love.

Soon after, no one was laughing. Dorothy had asked for a separation from her husband of a year—Paul Snider, 29, a small-time promoter who originally sent her nude photos to Playboy. Enraged by Dorothy's affair, Snider killed her with a 12-gauge shotgun blast to the face before turning the weapon on himself. The murder-suicide took place Aug. 14, 1980, one month after the movie had wrapped. Bogdanovich withdrew behind the iron gates of his lavish Bel Air estate, which has a film lab, a projection room and a staff of 19, to finish editing They All Laughed. "The film was my salvation, my record of Dorothy," he says now. "It showed her beauty and luminousness, her promise."

To the surprise of some, the promise was genuine. Though the movie's reviews were mixed, Stratten has won wide praise for her role as a married woman who falls for a bumbling detective played by Ritter. ("The part was me, in a way," says Bogdanovich.) Ritter agrees the film mirrored reality: "She and Peter were in love, and she was very circumspect about it until she could manage a divorce." Bogdanovich regards the movie as his tribute to Stratten. When 20th Century-Fox's plans for distributing the film seemed inadequate, he committed $1 million of his own money to buy the negative and do the job himself. "Dorothy was the finest, kindest, most decent human being I've ever known," lauds Peter, who says he was "ignorant" and "unkind" before meeting her. "She made me change for the better."

Bogdanovich is outraged that some have seen his sentiments as exploitation, even though Stratten has become something of a Hollywood mini-industry since her death. Playboy ran a long exculpatory article about her murder. Director Bob Fosse is planning a movie based on reporter Teresa Carpenter's story about the crime in the Village Voice, which helped win her a 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Jamie Lee Curtis and Bruce Weitz starred in a quickie TV bio, Death of a Centerfold, last November for NBC. "Jamie is tough; Dorothy was soft and sweet," says Bogdanovich contemptuously, and he has written a letter demanding a look at Fosse's script before production. "No one knows anything at all about it except me and her family," says Peter, who has begun writing a personal reminiscence of Dorothy, which Morrow will publish in the spring of 1983. "When the film wrapped we went to London for two weeks. It was her first trip abroad. We were planning our marriage. Two weeks later she was dead."

Since then Bogdanovich seldom goes out. "I'm a widower. I don't do much of anything," he says. At times, however, Bogdanovich's grief borders on melodrama. When asked who can understand his vacillating moods, Peter says softly, "Dorothy, only Dorothy." Could a 20-year-old really have had such depth? He explodes, "What a stupid, insensitive thing to say! No one understands."

They met at Hugh Hefner's mansion when Bogdanovich was at a low ebb. The son of an immigrant Yugoslavian father and an Austrian mother, he had become one of Hollywood's young geniuses, but his later movies, like Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love, were flops; Cybill Shepherd had left him and his mother had just died. "I'm sure I had preconceived ideas about Hef's Playmates," Bogdanovich remembers, "but Dorothy was very spiritual, very deep. I was arrogant, but she showed me a different way. Now I just keep getting angrier," states Peter, who says he has read the Bible, Freud, Jung, Bacon, Sophocles and mythology seeking analogies to Dorothy's death. "I've tried to make sense."

Bogdanovich refuses to see a psychiatrist. "What I think is nobody's business," he snaps. With the help of his crew, he's planning two new films: I'll Remember April, a comic ghost story set in France, and Paradise Road, about Las Vegas. But right now work doesn't seem to be enough. "I don't know if I can ever love as totally as I loved Dorothy," he says. "I'm still a hopeless romantic. Without that there's just emptiness."

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