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At once genial and candid, producer-turned-director Irwin Winkler brought to the big screen some of the most iconic films - as well as a few duds - in the history of motion pictures. Though he had made films inside the Hollywood studio system, Winkler has been more than happy to express his disappointment with the ever-increasing corporatization of the business and the lack of creative risk-taking that was par for the course when he came of age in the late 1960s. Though turning to directing after decades of producing alleviated some of the frustration and allowed him to take creative control, Winkler still battled producers and studio executives in a business more concerned with quarterly results than artistic triumph. With producing credits that included "Rocky" (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980) and "Goodfellas" (1990), Winkler landed a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2000, assuring his stature as one of the steadiest, though unsung, filmmakers in the late 20th century.Winkler was born on May 25, 1931 in Brooklyn, NY to a father in the wholesale silk business and a housewife mother. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in American literature from New York University in 1955, Winkler landed a...
At once genial and candid, producer-turned-director Irwin Winkler brought to the big screen some of the most iconic films - as well as a few duds - in the history of motion pictures. Though he had made films inside the Hollywood studio system, Winkler has been more than happy to express his disappointment with the ever-increasing corporatization of the business and the lack of creative risk-taking that was par for the course when he came of age in the late 1960s. Though turning to directing after decades of producing alleviated some of the frustration and allowed him to take creative control, Winkler still battled producers and studio executives in a business more concerned with quarterly results than artistic triumph. With producing credits that included "Rocky" (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980) and "Goodfellas" (1990), Winkler landed a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2000, assuring his stature as one of the steadiest, though unsung, filmmakers in the late 20th century.
Winkler was born on May 25, 1931 in Brooklyn, NY to a father in the wholesale silk business and a housewife mother. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in American literature from New York University in 1955, Winkler landed a job at the William Morris Agency in Los Angeles, working alongside the likes of Jerry Weintraub and Bernie Brillstein in the mailroom. Not well suited for a major agency, Winkler left and formed his own talent agency with Robert Chartoff. A strange series of events involving another client led the two newly-minted managers to represent actress Julie Christie, arranging her screen test for "Doctor Zhivago" (1965). They also brokered a distribution deal for the low-budget British film, "Darling" (also 1965), that earned Christie the Academy Award for Best Actress. Winkler and his partner formed Chertoff-Winkler Productions after jumping at the chance to produce movies for MGM - their first being "Double Trouble" (1967), one of many Elvis Presley vehicles made during the 1960s.
They followed up that same year with "Point Blank," a John Boorman gangster flick starring Lee Marvin as a professional thief seeking revenge on his unfaithful wife (Sharon Acker) and double-crossing friend (John Vernon). Winkler had his first critical success with "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), an emotionally-charged character study of several contestants (Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Gig Young) vying for a $1,500 prize in a Depression-era dance marathon. Directed by Sydney Pollack, "They Shoot Horses" earned seven Academy Award nominations and one win (Best Supporting Actor). With his clout growing, Winkler churned out movies with abandon - both schlock and hits - including the messy political drama "The Strawberry Statement" (1970), the goofy mafia comedy "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1971) and the hardnosed adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh's "The New Centurians" (1972), starring George C. Scott as a seasoned veteran on the verge of retirement who tries to show a rookie cop (Stacy Keach) the ropes.
After a couple best forgotten screwball comedies - "SPYS" (1974) and "Busting" (1974) - Winkler put his stamp on "The Gambler" (1974), a noir drama about a respected college professor (James Caan) in trouble with the mob over his insurmountable gambling debts. Though his career had been developing at a sure pace, Winkler's clout skyrocketed when he helped bring "Rocky" to the screen, turning then-unknown Sylvester Stallone into a star and earning the producer his first Academy Award. Both Winkler and Chartoff had thought highly of Stallone as an actor, but had nothing to cast him in. They read a script he wrote called "Paradise Alley," but felt it was not the right project for them at the time. Asked by the producers what else he wanted to do, he told them about his rags-to-riches tale of a struggling amateur boxer who gets the chance of a lifetime to fight the heavyweight champ. However, after promising Stallone he could star in the film, Winkler and Chartoff had a difficult task in selling the idea to United Artists. After some wrangling, the studio agreed to make the film, but didn't guarantee theatrical release. A strong showing in one theater in Los Angeles eventually led to a wider release that ultimately netted over $115 million at the box office, three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, and an iconic movie hero that would transcend generations.
After the critical and box office disappointment "Nickelodeon" (1976), Peter Bogdanovich's failed ode to the silent film era, Winkler began a long and fruitful collaboration with Martin Scorsese, beginning with "New York, New York" (1977), a period drama about a jazz singer (Liza Minelli) and her saxophonist husband (Robert De Niro) as they become famous on stage, but struggle to maintain their marriage off stage. After going back to the well with "Rocky II" (1979), Winkler reunited with Scorsese and De Niro for "Raging Bull" (1980) - perhaps the producer's most acclaimed film on his resume. Though a box office dud, "Raging Bull" earned eight Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best editing, and became one of the most revered and talked-about films in cinema history. Try as he might, Winkler was never part of a film like "Raging Bull" again. He did help steer ship on the second - but not the last - sequel "Rocky III" (1982), "Author! Author" (1982) and "The Right Stuff" (1983) - the latter film earning him another Academy Award nomination for Best Picture - effectively ending his producing partnership with Chartoff.
Another sequel, "Rocky IV" (1985), was followed by the dismal "Revolution" (1985), a bloated Revolutionary War epic that failed miserably at the box office and financially ruined Goldcrest Films. Winkler helped release several other forgettable features, including the unavoidable, but unnecessary "Rocky V" (1990), before returning to form with another Scorsese-De Niro collaboration on the seminal gangster epic, "Goodfellas" (1990). In a surprising career switch, Winkler turned to directing features, starting with "Guilty by Suspicion" (1991), a period drama about a Hollywood director (De Niro) whose budding career was destroyed by the Hollywood Blacklist. Though not a groundbreaker in terms of box office take - it banked only $8 million - the film did earn a moderate splattering of critical praise. His next effort at the helm, "Night and the City" (1992), a remake of Jules Dassin's 1950 noir flick about a two-bit lawyer (again, De Niro) trying to make it as a boxing promoter, faired much the same as his first film - little box office and critical respect.
Winkler did better at the box office with his third feature as director, "The Net" (1995) - a conspiracy thriller that played upon the then-new fear of having one's identity stolen over the Internet - though the movie itself took a critical drubbing. A brief return to producing duties on "The Juror" (1996) was followed up with his fourth directing effort, "At First Sight" (1999), a romantic drama about a New York architect (Mira Sorvino) who falls in love with a blind man (Val Kilmer) and learns that vision is comprised of more than just sight. Winkler again dipped his toe back into the producing pool with "The Shipping News" (2001), a thin adaptation of a dense Annie Proulx novel about a man's (Kevin Spacey) journey of self-discovery upon returning to his ancestral home, followed by directing the unscrupulously uplifting "Life as a House" (2001), starring Kevin Kline as a dying man who sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream of building his family a house.
After producing the ridiculous revenge thriller "Enough" (2002), Winkler teamed up again with Kline on "De-Lovely" (2004), a biopic of the great jazz composer Cole Porter (Kline) with a focus on his closeted homosexuality and his complicated relationship with wife and muse Linda (Ashley Judd). In what was to be the last go-round, Winkler and old pal Sly Stallone dug up the corpse of the Italian Stallion for "Rocky Balboa" (2006), a rousing, if rather ordinary installment to the series, that depicted an aged ex-champ getting himself into a high-profile exhibition with the reigning champ (Antonio Tarver) after a cyber-fight between the two deemed Balboa the winner. Back in the director's chair, Winkler helmed "Home of the Brave" (2006), a well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed tale about a National Guard unit in Iraq sent on a final humanitarian mission before they're to be sent back home to Spokane, WA.
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