There isn’t much Irwin Winkler doesn’t know about making movies, which is maybe why, unlike a lot of the young hotshots who’ve been in the business five seconds, his favorite subject is not his own genius.
Yet the Jan. 15 opening of “At First Sight,” which he directed and stars Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino, marks Winkler’s 30th year as one of the top filmmakers in the business.
Some of his greatest successes have been as a producer. The Winkler “brand” has so far accounted for 12 Academy Awards from 45 nominations, including a dozen for best picture. His blockbuster “Rocky” won for best picture in 1976. “Raging Bull,” “The Right Stuff” and “Goodfellas” show up high on most critics’ all-time-best-movies lists. And “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” his devastating look at desperation in the Depression as seen through a grueling dance marathon, garnered nine Oscar nominations by itself.
Into his 60s, Winkler decided to try his hand at directing. With the blacklist drama “Guilty by Suspicion,” the downbeat “Night and the City,” and the Nazi war criminal drama “Music Box,” Winkler’s directing efforts further enhanced his reputation as a filmmaker whose love is for the good story rather than the effects-packed blockbuster; he’d prefer to tackle darker, often introspective and controversial stories.
Winkler’s movies, whether as producer or director, always set out to challenge, but as a producer/director, he always keeps one eye on the budget. The producer in him loathes the current vogue for mega-budgets.
“It’s not just aggravating; it’s going to hurt the business a lot,” he says. “I can see spending a lot of money if you need special effects or you want to make ‘Ronin’ [the l998 John Frankenhemier epic] and you’ve got cars racing through the streets of France. That’s going to cost money and time to do. But when you have a love story and it’s two people talking in a room and you end up spending 120 days shooting and multimillions…I can’t see, frankly, how they can spend so much money on a picture like ‘Meet Joe Black.’ There isn’t anything that would justify it. It’s bad for the business, for filmmakers and bad for the studios because it means they’ll continue to do movies that don’t offer any real challenges to either audiences or the filmmakers.”
He likes to tell the story of making “Rocky,” a film no studio would make with the unknown Sylvester Stallone as writer and star. Winkler and his then-partner, Bob Chartoff, had a clause in their contract that stipulated they could make anything they wanted, provided the budget was no more than $1.5 million. So they guaranteed to make “Rocky” for that Scrooge-like figure. To finance the picture, the two men mortgaged their own houses.
Winkler had long been acquainted with the ignoble side of entertainment. The product of a traditional Jewish home on Coney Island and the son of a businessman and a housewife, his first job in “show business” was pulling dodgem cars apart when they got stuck.
He attended NYU at night so that he could work during the day. After he graduated, Winkler took the traditional first step toward a successful entertainment career — he joined the William Morris Manhattan office mail room in l955, working two nights a week.
“David Geffen came after me. Bernie Brillstein and Jerry Weintraub were there at the same time.”
The rest of the time, he was a “clacker” leading the laughter and applause on the “Walter Winchell” and the “Buddy Hackett” live shows.
But his real entree into the business was as a manager. “We represented Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash, and a beautiful British actress named Julie Christie,” he said. “The then-president of MGM, Robert O’Brien, had been asking us to go out to Hollywood to produce films for him. They wanted new, young blood in movies. So I brought him a project called ‘Double Trouble’ as a vehicle for Julie.”
In typical Hollywood fashion, the studio heads loved the script but wanted it for their star — a young man recently finished with his Army service, Elvis Presley.
No problem. “We rewrote it for Elvis,” says Winkler. “I didn’t know much about making films, but I watched and I learned.”
The Winkler-Chartoff team went on to produce provocative movies, such as “They Shoot Horses,” the jazz-era “Round Midnight,” “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” “Up the Sandbox,” “The Gambler,” “Comes a Horseman” and “True Confessions.” “Point Blank,” shot on Alcatraz, introduced director John Boorman to American audiences and starred Lee Marvin in one of his most interesting roles. “The Strawberry Statement” was based on an article in New York Magazine about campus unrest.
Along the way, Winkler developed a close relationship with two young Italian Americans, among the most gifted men in the business — director Martin Scorsese and actor De Niro.
“I met Martin at Lincoln Center after a screening of ‘Mean Streets.’ It led to ‘New York, New York.'”
With De Niro, he made a slew of films, including “Raging Bull” and “True Confessions.”
“To me, he’s one of the greatest actors of all time,” says Winkler. “He has an incredible intelligence about character, but, beyond that, he also works so hard on it. On “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” he was an unknown actor. We were paying him, I think, about a thousand a week. He came to me and said he wanted to go to Italy to research the character. I told him we didn’t have the budget to send him anywhere. And he said, ‘No. I’m going to do it on my own.’
“He had no money, but he comes back in a couple of weeks with all the wardrobe he would need and all his props. That’s a commitment you don’t get from anybody else.”
On “Raging Bull,” Winkler said that he tried to persuade De Niro to wear prosthetics for the “fat” Jake La Motta.
“I told him I thought gaining and losing all that weight would be dangerous. He told me: ‘You don’t understand. If I don’t do that, I won’t walk the same way. I’m going to have to gain the weight so I’ll feel heavy.’ He goes beyond what any other actor will do.”
The same could be said for Winkler, the only producer to have three movies on the American Film Institute’s top-100 list. Married 40 years to the same woman, he could spend his twilight years traveling between his home in Aspen, Colo., and his beloved France, where he is a Commander Des Arts et Lettres. Instead, he is planning a bunch of new pictures.
He is currently casting “The Lush Life,” a story he will produce about the friendship between jazz greats Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. Then there’s a movie about the Vietnam War, for which Paul Atannasio (“Homicide: Life on the Street”) is currently finishing the script.
Winkler would love to get a musical about the life of George Gershwin off the ground, but admits that it’s been in gestation for 18 years. But if anyone can get it done, Winkler’s the one.