I was 31 years old when I shot The Last Picture Show in Archer City and Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1970. At the end of those 10 tumultuous weeks, my life had changed completely.
Professionally, prior to 1970, I'd been an actor, an off-Broadway director and a film journalist, and I had made one low-budget film, Targets--a propitious beginning to my career. In my personal life, I had been married since the age of 22 to Polly Platt, and we had two small daughters. My father, a painter of the post-Impressionist school whom I greatly admired, was an undemonstrative man who said very little. I didn't realize, at that young age, how much I hungered for his approval or how little I understood myself.
Making The Last Picture Show from Larry McMurtry's novel--we co-wrote the screenplay--was a challenge, because the book had no real story line. But something drew me to this tale of a declining small town, the badly parented teenagers and the sad, unfulfilled adults. Polly (production designer) and I and the cast assembled in Texas to shoot. Before I myself realized that it was happening, my wife accused me of falling in love with 20-year-old actress Cybill Shepherd. Polly was right. As I was swept into an affair with Cybill, my mother called to tell me my father had had a stroke and was in a coma.
I continued filming until that Saturday night, when I flew to Scottsdale, Ariz., to see my father, then returned the next day to Texas. My personal life was a mess. I'd been a faithful husband for nine years, but I now felt powerless to stop the momentum. Polly moved out of our hotel room, and we tried to keep the affair quiet. That week I shot during the day and saw Cybill at night. On Wednesday of that week, the phone rang in the middle of the night--my father was dead. I was alone, and I just burst into tears. It was a terrible, dark moment.
But when you're on location, you have to keep working; there is no time to think. That Saturday I flew home, alone, for the funeral. Standing by his grave, I felt as if a light had gone out in my life.
Right after I returned, we shot the funeral scene, the burial of Sam the Lion, the film's father figure. My own grief lent the sequence an added weight and sorrow. And when I look back, I can see that my passion for Cybill also intensified the film's eroticism.
By the time the shooting ended, everything had changed. The affair that both Polly and I believed would end with the movie did not. There was a painful divorce, children who were hurt. But my relationship with Cybill made me feel vital again and brought me back to a time of great inspiration. The Last Picture Show was widely hailed on release, and it opened many doors for me. While Cybill and I were living together, I made two more successful films in a row, What's Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, and then three financially unsuccessful ones. Cybill and I went through some rough times, and after nine years we sadly broke up.