Winkler’s new memoir, “A Life in Movies: Stories From 50 Years in Hollywood,” is his personal chronicle of what did happen in a distinguished career that always kept him guessing: the Academy Award win for best picture, even though the studio wanted a different leading man (“Rocky”); the Oscar contender that had everything going for it but was a confounding box office disappointment (“The Right Stuff”); and a now-certified classic that could have starred Tom Cruise and Madonna as the leads (“Goodfellas”).
In between there were the masterworks (“Raging Bull”), flops (“Revolution”), underseen gems awaiting rediscovery (“True Confessions”) and Winkler’s eventual transition from producer to director (1991’s “Guilty by Suspicion”).
Winkler can certainly relate to Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman’s oft-quoted maxim that in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.” Who could have guessed that “The Right Stuff,” based on Tom Wolfe’s celebrated book about the nascent American space program, would flop while “some little million-dollar movie shot in Philadelphia about a broken-down fighter would become a worldwide phenomenon?”
“A Life in Movies” is more than 30 years in the making. Winkler got his start in the William Morris Agency mailroom (a route he still recommends) and became an agent. With Robert Chartoff, he started a talent management firm and then a production company that became known for tackling substantive projects — an ironic twist, as Winkler became fascinated by the film business while reading Harold Robbins’s 1961 potboiler “The Carpetbaggers” on long subway rides home to Coney Island after night classes at NYU.
In the mid-1980s, Winkler said, “I started keeping a diary because people kept asking me what a producer did.” He hopes that readers will gain a better understanding of how movies are created as well as an appreciation for the challenges of making movies. “As you go through the 30 to 40 movies I talk about, I don’t think you’ll find one that was easy to make,” he said.
Fascinating from a “what if” standpoint is an appendix in which Winker lists projects that were ultimately not produced, ranging from a Daniel Boone biopic scripted by John Milius to a seemingly prescient comedy written by Carrie Fisher about a populist media figure who gets into politics.
He writes candidly about misfires, too, such as “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” a comedy directed by James Goldstone. (Winkler vetoed hiring Francis Ford Coppola, believing the future director of “The Godfather” wasn’t right to direct a gangster film.) On “Nickelodeon,” Winkler clashed with Peter Bogdanovich, whom he considered to be arrogant. At one point, Winkler visited the set and found Bogdanovich directing on horseback in the manner of one of his idols, John Ford.
Winkler began his career during the tumultuous transition from old Hollywood to the so-called New Hollywood, a period that saw the rise of a generation of directors who brought bold vision and new freedoms to the screen with such films as “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider” and “The French Connection.” “It was invigorating because there was chaos in Hollywood,” he said. “The young directors who came out of the late ’60s and early ’70s — [Steven] Spielberg, [William] Friedkin, Bogdanovich — really made terrific films. The whole landscape changed and a lot of it was due to these young directors who broke out of the system, which was then broken down. They all were people who loved making movies and loved the old films as well.”
Today, he said, working with directors is a balance of what went on in the 1970s. “In making [the “Rocky” franchise spinoffs] ‘Creed’ and ‘Creed II,’ directors Ryan Coogler and Steven Caple Jr. have that love of movies,” he said. “They have independent minds, but they want to work within the system. That’s been interesting.”
“My Life in Movies” is bookended by two events that chart Winkler’s journey from Young Turk to elder statesman. The book begins with Winkler sharing a studio commissary table with the old guard, who shun him. By book’s end, he’s hosting a dinner for the producers of that year’s best picture Oscar nominees.
The function of a producer has changed dramatically over the course of his career. “The producer used to have a significant role in not only developing but also promoting and managing a movie,” he said. “A producer today doesn’t have the complete autonomy of an Arthur Freed [who produced MGM’s classic musicals]. He made all those great movies with no interference at all and with financial backing. There isn’t that kind of trust anymore.”
How producing has changed is exemplified by the Netflix release of “The Irishman,” which is the fifth movie Winkler has produced for Martin Scorsese. With a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, it’s one of the most-anticipated movies of the year. Like Netflix’s best-picture nominee “Roma,” “The Irishman” will get a theatrical release before playing on the streaming service.
In his memoir, Winkler explains why he partnered with Netflix over a Hollywood studio. “Easy,” he writes. “The cost of financing. The marketing of a big budget film can run up to $100 million. That’s OK for ‘Star Wars’ . . . or most of the Marvel or D.C. Comics films that are guaranteed worldwide audiences. ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ . . . sold $1.6 billion worth of tickets after just four weeks.” But “The Irishman” “would have a hard time competing in that comic book world. So along comes Netflix with their financial support, subscriber audience, and very little, if any, marketing cost. Netflix provides the opportunity to show ‘The Irishman’ to over one hundred million movie fans.”
Despite the technological advancements and game-changing new distribution models, Winkler is still engaged by making movies. In his memoir, he recalls a poignant scene in “Nickelodeon,” when a director and his crew pass a soundstage in action and the director, portrayed by Ryan O’Neal, becomes emotional: “Look, they’re making a movie.”
“That to me was very personal,” Winkler writes. “Even though I’ve been on movie sets all of my adult life, I still marvel at the process, and when I walk by a company shooting in the street, I stop and smile.”
There are still plenty of artists on Winkler’s wish list. “I’ve always wanted to work with Tom Hanks,” he said. “We came close years ago on a Gershwin biopic, but it didn’t happen. I would love to work with Meryl Streep.” Taking a beat, he adds: “I probably will work with them; I’m still trying.”
Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. He is published in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.