A rollicking autobiography from the legendary producer of Goodfellas, Rocky, and Raging Bull, and an insider’s account of making movies in Hollywood over half a century The list of films Irwin Winkler has produced in his more-than-fifty-year career is extraordinary: Rocky, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, De-Lovely, The Right Stuff, Creed, and The Irishman. His films have been nominated for fifty-two Academy Awards, including five movies for Best Picture, and have won twelve. In A Life in Movies, his charming and insightful memoir, Winkler tells the stories of his career through his many films as a producer and then as a writer and director, charting the changes in Hollywood over the past decades. Winkler started in the famous William Morris mailroom and made his first film—starring Elvis—in the last days of the old studio system. Beginning in the late 1960s, and then for decades to come, he produced a string of provocative and influential films, making him one of the most critically lauded, prolific, and commercially successful producers of his era. This is an engrossing and candid book, a beguiling exploration of what it means to be a producer, including purchasing rights, developing scripts, casting actors, managing directors, editing film, and winning awards. Filled with tales of legendary and beloved films, as well as some not-so-legendary and forgotten ones, A Life in Movies takes readers behind the scenes and into the history of Hollywood.
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About the Author
Irwin Winkler is an American film producer, writer, and director. He is the recipient of numerous American and international honors.
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From Coney Island to William Morris to Hollywood
MY INTRODUCTION TO SHOW business came via a circuitous route (don't many important things in life?). Growing up in Coney Island, I played and worked on the famous boardwalk, selling hot dogs and cotton candy and taking tickets for kiddie rides. Whenever I had free time, I would end up in one of the two local movie theaters. The one that showed mostly MGM films was the favorite for dates — those were the romances and the musicals in blazing color. The other movie houses showed the much tougher Warner Bros.' James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart gangster films. For those films, no dates. I graduated from high school early and was seventeen and a half when I entered New York University.
It was 1949, and NYU was crowded with mature students who were attending college under the GI Bill. I was lost, had few friends, didn't like school, and after a couple of years enlisted in the United States Army, figuring if I couldn't study with soldiers, I'd fight alongside them. The infantry unit I was assigned to in Camp Polk, Louisiana, was training for duty in Korea, where the North Koreans had invaded South Korea. (A useless war in which fifty-two thousand Americans died, and we seem to be at it again!)
When our sergeant asked if anyone could type, I raised my hand, figuring it would be a lot better than schlepping a forty-pound mortar on my back. They discovered I wasn't the greatest typist in the army, but before they might have sent me to the ice-cold front lines, I luckily became indispensable when I located some misplaced service records of Korean-assigned infantry men. After my discharge I returned to NYU a lot more grown up than when I'd left. One of the classes I signed up for was Contemporary American Literature. The instructor was a Professor Leahey, who introduced me to John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was engrossed in the creativity of these writers, and, instead of an indifferent student who joined the army to get away from studying, I became a constant presence in the library as I consumed book after book until I graduated.
When I was a student at New York University, I had a lengthy subway ride from Coney Island in Brooklyn, where I lived, to Manhattan. To take a break from studying the great American writers, I picked up a pulp-fiction novel, The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins, about the early pioneers in the film industry, from the nickelodeon to the modern day (at the time: 1958). I was intrigued, read the book twice, and remembered I had grown up with a fellow who now always looked great in a black suit, white shirt, and tie, who was with MCA, then a renowned talent agency. Upon graduating from NYU a short time later, I had to get a job. Remembering The Carpetbaggers and not knowing any better, I called and somehow got an interview for a job in the MCA mail room. Going from the reception area to my interview, I passed a couple of the black-suited agents who were on the phone in animated conversations, and I caught snippets of one talking to "Burt," who I realized was Burt Lancaster, another to "Tony," who was Tony Curtis, and I thought, Wow, this is a lot better than my father's cotton goods business. The interview, however, wasn't "wow." Far from it. I was asked a dozen questions, none of which I answered or spoke of with any knowledge. I was quickly shown the door and told why didn't I try that other agency, William Morris.
At William Morris a very sweet receptionist handed me an application form, and after a short wait the head of the mail room, sure enough, asked me pretty much the same questions as the MCA fellow. But now I knew what not to say. I was hired for eight weeks at $40 per week to fill in for summer-vacationing messenger "boys" (no women), with the understanding that I would be let go when the vacations were over. Fair enough. I was more curious than ambitious.
After six or seven weeks of sorting mail, I was given a pack of savings bank books in the name of Abe Lastfogel, the head man at William Morris. I was instructed to take each one of the twenty to thirty savings bank books to different banks all over Manhattan and Brooklyn and have the interest on the savings accounts entered. It seemed Mr. Lastfogel didn't trust any one bank with all his money and was also protecting himself from multiple bank failures, so he deposited the maximum amount protected by law, $5,000, in each bank. This was the man who was running a giant talent agency, advising clients from Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe to Danny Kaye about their careers. I thought about my degree from NYU and that this procedure certainly wasn't what I'd been taught about economics and financial planning, but Lastfogel was the boss, and I was the mail boy.
As Labor Day approached, I was told I would be let go, as all the vacationers were returning. I was starting to enjoy the simplicity of the mail room and the camaraderie of my colleagues, who included future producers Bernie Brillstein, Jerry Weintraub, and George Shapiro. I was also enjoying the Broadway theater, as a couple of times a week clients would cancel at the last minute, and I got to see (and fall in love with) the musicals My Fair Lady, Bells Are Ringing, The Most Happy Fella, Auntie Mame, and legit shows like Long Day's Journey into Night and Separate Tables. Although that $40 a week didn't give me much to live on, I found myself really liking my little corner of showbiz.
As my departure date loomed, I was given an envelope and $4 in cab fare to take a contract to the singer Billy Eckstine for a performance that night. I was told to get it signed and brought right back. I walked from the Morris office on 55th Street to the subway on 59th Street, the express train took me to Eckstine's apartment on 125th Street, he signed the contract, and the express took me back to the office in just about twenty minutes! The office manager accused me of not only pocketing the $4 cab fare but also forging Eckstine's signature, since it was impossible for me to get back and forth so quickly. I protested and asked him to call Eckstine, who would verify his signature and my credibility. My boss was so embarrassed when Eckstine told him the kid had been there that he kept me on in the mail room.
Twenty-five years later an old friend, Jerry Perenchio, had a birthday party and had Eckstine perform, after which the singer coincidentally sat next to me for dinner. I told him the story of my long-ago trip to his apartment, and he looked at me blankly. The defining moment in my career was a completely insignificant moment in his. I guess it depends on which side of the aisle you're sitting on.
Now settled into the mail room, I had corresponded with a fellow clerk in the Los Angeles William Morris office mail room. He "introduced" me to Margo Melson, a beautiful young woman who had recently moved to New York from California. We met at the lounge of the Park Sheraton Hotel right next to the Morris office, had dinner that night, the next night, and, except for a couple of early days, we haven't separated in sixty years. Margo and I had come together in spite of her mother warning her to "Never marry an agent or a Jew." Margo was brought up in a non-practicing Jewish home by parents who were formerly vaudeville performers.
In the early part of the twentieth century, before television, radio, and widespread moviegoing, vaudeville was the primary source of entertainment in much of the United States. Performances featured an act, be it a juggler, acrobat, singer, comedian, dancer, you name it. The act traveled from city to city, town to town, the performers very often staying in rooming houses that bore signs No dogs or Jews allowed. Margo's mother, Irma, went by the name Irmanette, and her act was playing Beethoven violin concertos while on her toes and doing a backbend (she also seriously played at Carnegie Hall). Charlie Melson, Margo's father, was a bandleader who did "sand dance," a soft-shoe routine on sand spread on the stage. When Margo was growing up, however, these talents were no longer of use, nor was vaudeville.
Margo and I married eight months after we met. Margo's show business genes played well when she had a small part in the The Strawberry Statement, one of my earliest movies, right up through Marty Scorsese's After Hours, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas, as well as Night and the City, The Net, and Guilty by Suspicion.
To supplement my meager income from the Morris office trainee program, I was able to "laugh" on two live television shows. Both The Walter Winchell Show and The Buddy Hackett Show had me laugh and applaud when the audience didn't. (It was pretty often.)
When a job opened up for a projectionist at William Morris, I applied and found myself running a 16mm projection machine, rather ineptly, and booking auditions in the conference room (including one for Elvis Presley, whom I got to know under very different circumstances, but that's for later) until I was promoted to secretary to an agent in the syndication department. The glamour of showbiz proved very unglamorous when my job consisted of selling foreign rights to half-hour television shows the likes of Make Room for Daddy starring Danny Thomas and The Dick Van Dyke Show that the Morris office represented. Toward the fifth boring year I was introduced to the brilliant magazine editor (and lifelong friend) Clay Felker. Although I had little background in talent management, I had learned a lot by osmosis, hanging around with the talent agents, reading the odd script, and the like. And because of my Morris office pedigree, Clay asked if I would handle his young and gorgeous wife, the actress Pamela Tiffin. In short order Clay introduced me to the group of extremely talented writers who represented the "new" form of journalism: Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Nick Pileggi, Jimmy Breslin, Gail Sheehy, and Nora Ephron. Clay had assembled that group of writers when he was editor of the New York Herald Tribune and founder of New York magazine (I was a minor investor). Clay would introduce me to a whole new world far from the tedium of selling syndication rights, and through Pamela I was introduced to the world of the movies.
Examining my years as a mediocre (and that's an overstatement) agent, I decided to go into the personal management business with Bob Chartoff, a recent graduate of Columbia Law School who had no desire to be a lawyer. Bob and I met one night when one of his clients, the comic Jackie Mason, was on The Ed Sullivan Show and I was covering it for another William Morris agent who was sick. Bob then wanted me to see a singer he was interested in, who was appearing in a club downtown. I didn't think much of the singer, but I thought Bob was interesting, ambitious, and very smart. Bob soon after asked if I would handle Mason at William Morris. We booked Mason into some high-profile clubs and multiple appearances on live variety shows. Bob then suggested I leave William Morris and join him in the management business. I brought in to our partnership a few of my clients whom the Morris office had no interest in. One, an Englishman, Nat Cohen, was the producer of Carry On Nurse, one of a series of lowbrow comedies, and some minor television dramas. Bob, of course, had his list of singers and comics. Margo never blinked when I told her I was thinking of leaving my secure job at William Morris for the unknown world of personal management. We had no money and two young boys, Charles and David (Adam was yet to come), but Margo, rather than urging caution, was encouraging when I was unsure. It's been the same ever since.
Out of character, Nat Cohen had financed a small feature film called Billy Liar starring Tom Courtenay and the young British actress Julie Christie, directed by John Schlesinger (who later went on to direct Midnight Cowboy). When Cohen signed Christie for Billy Liar, he also got options on her acting services for six more films with the right to lend her out to other films (at a profit, of course). He asked us to represent those loans or, as he put it, "get her a big movie." We found Billy Liar playing at small art house on Long Island. Watching the movie, Bob and I kept waiting for Julie Christie to show up on-screen. After thirty minutes or so she came bopping down the street, her hair flowing, beautiful face and figure, the epitome of English "hip" in the mid-1960s. One look at Christie and I poked my partner and said, "Bob, we're gonna be in the movie business!" Shortly thereafter Cohen told us he was financing another film directed by Schlesinger starring Christie called Darling, and would we help Schlesinger in the casting of Darling when he came to New York? In the meantime, we started looking for a movie for Christie after Darling. We checked all the upcoming films, and I heard about David Lean casting Doctor Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak's novel about the Russian Revolution. We called Lean, and the producer, Carlo Ponti's, lawyer in New York, Lee Steiner, who told us to send him a letter on behalf of Julie Christie and that he would pass it on to Ponti. The suggestion of "sending a letter" seemed pretty much like a brush-off. It wasn't. At least not after Steiner called and we arranged for Christie to test for the starring role of Lara. Christie's test was successful, she got the part (beating out Jane Fonda), and Cohen asked us to come to London to see the half-completed Darling so that we could advise him on selling the film in the States.
The only problem we had at that point was finding the money to get to London. With my two small children and Bob's three and not all of our clients paying commission, we were living hand to mouth. Bob found out about a gambling junket f lying from New York to London with a planeload of high rollers, and they must have been short two players, because we were off to London in short order. We were put up at a fancy West End hotel and ferried to the Victoria Sporting Club, where we were given dinner and expected to gamble. Bob and I bought $500 in chips and during the rest of our stay kept cashing in our supposed winnings, buying more chips for the sum of $500, then cashing them in again, looking very active but really risking nothing. In the meantime, we saw a rough cut of Darling and realized it was not only a very fine film but cutting-edge cinema that would make Julie Christie a star.
Back in New York we figured that MGM, the financiers behind Doctor Zhivago, would be a natural to buy and distribute Darling in the United States. MGM's CEO, Bob O'Brien, whom we were introduced to by Lee Steiner, thought so too and said he planned to go to London to see Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and that we should meet him there and screen Darling for him. Luckily there was another junket, and back to London we went. O'Brien liked what he saw and agreed to buy the U.S. rights for $1.1 million. Cohen was thrilled, Julie Christie was thrilled, and I guess the Victoria Sporting Club was less so, as we were never able to get on another junket.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Life in Movies"
Copyright © 2019 Irwin Winkler.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I 1
Chapter 1 From Coney Island to William Morris to Hollywood 4
Chapter 2 Actually making movies, Double Trouble, and a very tough Lee Marvin in Point Blank 14
Chapter 3 A rebuff of Shakespeare, a welcome from jack Warner, and diversity 25
Chapter 4 From the college campus uprising, to decadence in London, to a Hollywood dance marathon, to the Cannes Film Festival 30
Part II 49
Chapter 5 Starting a long friendship with the great actor Bob De Niro, the 1970s drug culture, and two different looks at the Los Angeles Police Department 51
Chapter 6 From Africa with Barbra Streisand to Charlie Bronson and a fine script that went sour 64
Chapter 7 To quote Rick in Casablanca, "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." 76
Chapter 8 From Rocky to Oscar 87
Part III 95
Chapter 9 A very different fight film 98
Chapter 10 De Niro and Pacino have The Right Stuff 107
Part IV 129
Chapter 11 The Cold War stars in one movie, the Revolutionary War in another, and one very fine movie doesn't get made 130
Chapter 12 A trip to Paris pays off 141
Chapter 13 Two political films and a couple of Goodfellas 146
Chapter 14 A career change from producer to director, back to producer (almost) 161
Chapter 15 Working with some special ladies-Sandra Bullock and Demi Moore-and a special doctor, Oliver Sacks 189
Chapter 16 Life with Kevin Kline is De-Lovely; a director gets bullied into not making a film 204
Chapter 17 From Camp Polk, Louisiana, to the Iraq War 222
Part V 231
Chapter 18 A wild ride to Wall Street, a gamble turning over a classic to a new generation, a sad loss, and a long-delayed Silence 233
Part VI 261
Chapter 19 Old Friends 263
Photo Credits 286