I was born in 1968, the year Peter Bogdanovich made his first movie, Targets, the story of a disturbed Vietnam vet who goes on a shooting spree at a drive-in theater. It was re-released in May by the Criterion Collection in a beautifully remastered print, something that would have made Peter very proud.
Our living room in Toluca Lake was dominated by a three-foot-by-four-foot French movie poster of Targets (La Cible) featuring Boris Karloff, who plays a soon-to-retire horror actor, in the crosshairs of a rifle. Peter loved it when people walked into the living room and the first thing they saw was Karloff’s face.
Targets was never far from Peter’s mind, particularly toward the end of his life, when it seemed as if not a week went by without some unspeakable mass shooting somewhere in America. He questioned whether making and releasing Targets all those years ago had been the right thing to do.
We were no strangers to gun violence. In 1980, my sister, Dorothy Stratten, was savagely murdered by her estranged husband, Paul Snider.
Snider had “discovered” Dorothy working at a Dairy Queen in Vancouver and began managing her career as a Playboy model and aspiring actress. But he lost his mind over the fact that Peter and Dorothy had fallen in love while making Peter’s film, They All Laughed. Paul’s Svengali presence in Dorothy’s life became intolerable. When he was finally barred from the Playboy Mansion itself, it was an exile that his childish, monumental ego couldn’t abide. The shotgun blast that took Dorothy’s life went through all of us: Peter; me; my mother, Nellie; and my brother, John.
Eight years after Dorothy’s death, I married Peter. We would stay married for 13 years. When he died unexpectedly, on January 6, 2022—the first anniversary of the bloody insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—Peter and I, though divorced, had been living together in my apartment in Toluca Lake. He’d moved back in with me in 2018, after shattering his left leg in a fall just hours before he was to be honored at the Grand Lyon Film Festival.
We were working on the screenplay that Peter hoped would be his next, and possibly last, “picture,” which was the charming, old-fashioned way he would talk about the movies. After all, he had learned so much from so many of the old masters, many of whom he’d gotten to know in the twilight of their careers, movie men often known by their last names: Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock, Welles.
“A Very Dark and a Very Deep Topic”
In the early 60s, Peter was living in New York, working in the theater as an actor and director and writing movie profiles for Esquire. In 1964, he moved to California, where he met Roger Corman, providentially, in a movie theater.
When you google Roger Corman’s name, one of those suggested searches that pop up made me laugh: “Did Roger Corman make any good movies?” Of course he did! True, he was best known for his quickie biker flicks, and among the 300 movies he produced, or the 50 or so he directed, few are masterpieces. But he did give us many entertaining movies, such as his adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. And Roger gave many of the great American directors of the last half-century their start, including Peter, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Ron Howard, and Francis Ford Coppola, not to mention actors such as Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, and Jack Nicholson.
Corman knew Peter’s articles for Esquire and asked him if he’d like to sign on as the second-unit director on a movie he was preparing, a biker flick called The Wild Angels. Peter jumped at the chance. When it was finished, Corman called Peter over and asked, “Would you like to make your own film?” He offered him a budget of $125,000.
But there were strings attached. The classic horror actor Boris Karloff contractually owed Corman two days’ work. Corman asked Peter if he could shoot about 20 minutes of new footage with Karloff. He then suggested that Peter take another 20 minutes of outtakes from Karloff’s latest, the Corman-produced The Terror, which had just wrapped, and combine that with another 40 minutes of footage Peter would film with other actors, giving him a new, 80-minute Karloff movie. And it would give Peter the chance to work with his then wife, the gifted set designer and filmmaker Polly Platt, on the screenplay. All they needed now was a story.
Peter told me that he couldn’t figure out how to bring Boris Karloff into the modern world. He wanted to make a contemporary tale, but he had to incorporate Corman’s horror-movie footage. His solution was to begin his picture in a projection room, screening the end of The Terror. The lights come up, Karloff is sitting there, and he turns to the producer and says, “That’s the worst picture I’ve ever seen” (which was also Peter’s estimation of The Terror).
Corman called Peter over and asked, “Would you like to make your own film?” He offered him a budget of $125,000.
That still didn’t give him the plot. But, a few months earlier, Peter’s editor at Esquire, Harold Hayes, had suggested that Peter make a movie about Charles Whitman, one of America’s first mass shooters, an ex-Marine from Texas who had killed his wife and mother, then headed to the University of Texas clock tower and randomly opened fire, killing at least 10 more people and wounding many more before being taken out by the police.
It came to Peter while he was shaving that he could crosscut the terrible Whitman shooting with The Terror footage, recutting it to shape the story around Karloff as an aging horror-film actor who decides to end his career.
In the movie, Karloff’s character, Byron Orlok, wants to quit acting because his kind of gothic horror is out of date. “I know how people think of me these days,” he says in the picture. “Old-fashioned, outmoded … ‘Mr. Boogeyman, King of Blood,’ they used to call me. The Marx Brothers make you laugh. Garbo makes you weep. Orlok makes you scream.”
Peter worked with Polly developing the story, then showed the screenplay to his friend the veteran director Samuel Fuller. Peter told me that Sam basically re-wrote the script. “Sammy, this is fantastic,” he told Fuller. “I gotta give you credit for this.” But Sam insisted on no credit, saying, “Otherwise, they’ll think I did the whole damn thing.” But Peter, when talking about Targets, always credited Fuller’s generosity. (“No credit, no money, just a favor.”)
Peter appears in the movie as a young screenwriter named Sammy Michaels, a sly tribute to Fuller, whose name was Samuel Michael Fuller. He would make jokes about himself in the part, but then later in life he thought maybe it wasn’t such a bad performance after all. I always thought he was great.
The shooter, Bobby Thompson (played by Tim O’Kelly), begins his killing spree by shooting his wife and mother, then tucking them neatly, almost tenderly, into their beds. That whole sequence was based on what Charles Whitman actually did. But instead of climbing a university tower, Bobby climbs onto an industrial dome overlooking an L.A. freeway and begins his killing spree by randomly picking off drivers. He ends up at a drive-in movie where Byron Orlok is to make his final public appearance that night at a screening of The Terror.
Peter found out they weren’t allowed to film anywhere near the freeways, but he’d learned from Roger Corman to ignore the rules. I don’t know how they got away with it, but they filmed that sequence in two days—without sound, to save money. Fuller had advised Peter, “Save your money for the finish, kid,” so Peter did.
Peter’s editor at Esquire, Harold Hayes, had suggested that Peter make a movie about Charles Whitman, one of America’s first mass shooters.
Roger Corman distributed his movies through American International Pictures, but Peter was confident that he could get a major studio to release Targets. It was Jerry Lewis and his assistant, Carol Saracino, who brought Targets to the attention of Robert Evans, head of Paramount Studios at the time.
The only problem was Evans didn’t want to see the movie. He had a dinner party to go to, and he didn’t want to be late. So he decided to just screen a little bit of it, but ended up watching the whole picture. When it was over, he called Peter and complained that Peter had ruined his evening because he never made it to dinner. But he loved the movie. “It’s a hell of a picture,” he told Peter. “We wanna buy it.”
However, Charles Bluhdorn, the head of Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount, hated Targets and didn’t want to release it because of all the recent killings in the news—not just Whitman’s but also the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. He felt that the movie was just too violent for the times.
Peter was invited to screen Targets at a film class at U.S.C., and he shrewdly invited two film critics he knew. After their enthusiastic reviews ran in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, Bluhdorn changed his mind. Paramount gave Targets a limited release, with a disclaimer warning America about its problem with guns.
The disclaimer read: “Why gun control? Why did a lunatic sniper kill or maim 11 innocent victims in Texas on June 3, 1966? [sic] Why were over 7,000 Americans slain or wounded by gunfire in 1967? Why in 1968 after assassinations and thousands more murders has our country no effective gun control law? This motion picture tells a story that sheds a little light on a very dark and a very deep topic.”
With that disclaimer, Peter felt that the picture would be seen as more documentary-like, and in fact it didn’t do well at the box office despite very good reviews. Nonetheless, Targets was the springboard for The Last Picture Show, Peter’s next film and one of his masterpieces. “That wouldn’t have happened without Targets,” Peter often said, “which wouldn’t have happened without Roger, which wouldn’t have happened without Karloff. And so that’s how it goes in the movie business. One thing leads to another.”
Eventually Targets became a cult movie and is now considered a classic.
Prisoners of Our Own Grief
I first watched Targets after my sister was murdered, and Peter was concerned about me seeing it. He feared it might trigger memories of that terrible day. So he waited at least a couple of years, until I was 16. He told me that when he screened it for Dorothy, she was frightened by the film, and surprised that Peter would have made it. “Peter,” she told him, “you’re so not like this movie.” She felt that Peter was completely the opposite—light and funny and bright. He made her laugh! So why would he make a movie about real-life families being killed by their own family members, where you’re not even safe in your own home?
Peter was always very proud of Targets because it was his first picture, but later on he worried that making Targets had been irresponsible. I remember how shaken Peter was by the mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. “People go to a movie to have a good time, and they get killed,” he said. “It’s a horrible, horrible event. It makes me sick that I made a movie about it.”
He had meant Targets to be a cautionary tale, but after Dorothy was murdered, he realized that movies, music, and video games have a lot of influence over people. He came to feel that there was too much killing in movies, which makes audiences numb to violence. Peter once asked Orson Welles about the increase of violence in pictures, and Welles answered, “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Colosseum.” I don’t know how seriously he meant it, but I recall Peter wondering if Targets may have contributed to the demise of the drive-in, just as he believed the pandemic, along with streaming movies at home, may have brought us to “the end of pure cinema,” a pronouncement he would make in his best Hitchcock imitation.
I come from Canada, where mass shootings are rare. I always wanted to live in America, even though I increasingly saw it becoming gun crazy like the Wild West. Though I’ve lived here on and off for many years, I felt safer in Canada. In America, I sometimes find myself looking around for the nearest exits in case I’m caught in a mass shooting. When in Canada, I don’t have those thoughts.
Paul Snider, the man who killed my sister, was a Canadian citizen who was in America illegally, but he was able to buy a shotgun without any questions asked, despite his psychological problems. That was more than 40 years ago, but how much different is it today?
The difference is that it’s worse. To help bring about change, I created the Dorothy Stratten Foundation for survivors of domestic violence.
I was supposed to go with Dorothy the day she was murdered. She had promised to take me shopping after seeing Snider, and she was going to buy me a pair of Capezio dance shoes after I’d borrowed hers. We were on our way when I suddenly asked her to turn around and go back, because I had a weird moment—almost like a voice saying, “Go back, go back.” She turned around and took me to Peter’s home in Bel Air, and then drove to Snider’s.
For years, I felt that had I gone with her, I might have prevented it from happening. It took me a long time to realize that nothing would’ve stopped him, and, as Peter said, it’s more likely that he would have murdered me too.
Murder doesn’t destroy just the victims. Family members and friends are changed forever. You wonder what life would’ve been like if it hadn’t happened. I was 12, 8 years younger than Dorothy, and she would often say to me, “Just wait till we get older. We’ll hang out as friends.” I never got to do that.
Peter once asked Orson Welles about the increase of violence in pictures, and Welles answered, “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Colosseum.”
Her murder not only affected Peter’s life and my life; it affected Peter’s two daughters’ lives as well, because Peter wasn’t the same afterward. His daughters, Antonia and Sashy, often said, “We lost our dad,” because he was so changed. I didn’t quite understand it then, but I do now.
After the tragedy, Peter became scared, even paranoid, because he’d discovered that when Dorothy was living with him in Bel Air, Paul Snider drove by the house with a shotgun, planning to kill Peter. He often said, “My God, I wish that he would’ve gotten me instead of Dorothy,” but it shook him. Peter insisted that my mother and I come live with him. He wanted to protect us. He wanted me to be home-schooled. He was convinced that the ever present sound of helicopters flying above L.A. was meant in some sinister way for us. The three of us had become prisoners of our own grief and fear.
The playful and insouciant man Dorothy had introduced me to just the year before seemed to have vanished, leaving a brokenhearted man in his place. In time, something of the old Peter returned to us, though that unspeakably violent day would never be far from his waking life.
In 1983, Bob Fosse made Star 80, his dramatization of Dorothy’s death. No one else around Dorothy could bear to see it, so Fosse asked me. He wanted me to give him notes. Looking back, it was a lot to ask of a young girl—I think I was 14—to relive her sister’s murder. It was almost a kind of child abuse. I kept thinking to myself, Why did he even make this movie? It’s not a musical, his usual genre. I think I even asked him that.
When Peter finally saw Star 80, he hated it. And even though Targets was based on a true incident, its violence came to bother him over the years. Especially after Dorothy was murdered, he felt a responsibility to be careful about depicting violence on-screen.
Dorothy’s story has never really been told through the people that knew her the best and loved her the most, except in Peter’s book The Killing of the Unicorn. Frank Marshall, a longtime collaborator of Peter’s (he was an assistant on Targets), is adapting it for a limited TV series. Because The Killing of the Unicorn contains Dorothy’s own journal entries, she will finally be able to reclaim her own story. I believe that viewers are going to get an incredible sense of Dorothy and understand why people still remember her today.
After Targets, Peter was often criticized for being a man out of time, for offering romantic comedy and old-fashioned musicals during a period of roiling social change. But looking back on it now, after the prescient violence of Targets, perhaps he was simply offering us both a respite from the horror and holding up a mirror to the better angels of the human spirit. At least I’d like to think so.
Louise Stratten is a writer, producer, actress, and the founder of the Dorothy Stratten Foundation. She was a frequent collaborator with Peter Bogdanovich
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL.Previously a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends