As the mastermind behind films such as Raging Bull, Rocky and The Wolf of Wall Street, Irwin Winkler has lived at the beating heart of Hollywood for half a century.
During 50 years of writing, directing and producing he’s witnessed everything from Natalie Wood faking injury to Elvis hiding from non-existent fans.
Now 88, he has revealed the secrets behind his hits, including the temper tantrums and diva demands along the way, in his book My Life in Movies…
While filming Double Trouble in 1967, Elvis desperately avoided attention from fans.
But Winkler says he need not have worried.
He says: “As he left the MGM lot, his two closet pals, Red and Sonny, would get in his car with him… they’d have Elvis get down on the floor and throw a blanket over him so the crowds outside the gate wouldn’t storm the car.
“The sad truth was, there was no one there. Did he know the crowds weren’t there, or did he not want to know?”
Robert De Niro went to southern Italy to research his character Mario for 1971 mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
He even paid for the trip himself with his “small” salary.
Winkler says: “De Niro came back a week later with a tan, the clothes, the props and his character. I knew right then that Bob De Niro was a special actor and a special person. I didn’t know that we’d be friends for the next 50 years.”
In the same way while filming New York, New York in 1977, De Niro learned the saxophone.
Winkler says: “We hired a jazz saxophonist, Georgie Auld… to tutor Bob. Bob soon went from holding the sax and fingering the keys to learning notes and playing actual passages.”
Later Liam Neeson and Adam Driver took things to similar lengths in 2016’s historical drama Silence.
Winkler writes: “Instead of using a stunt double, Driver jumped into the freezing ocean. He had to be wrapped in heated blankets but insisted he could do another, better take.
“Liam spent hours hanging upside down over a fire in another scene of Japanese torture. No stuntman either.”
Hollywood star Natalie Wood demanded a diamond bracelet to cover a wrist injury, while filming 1975’s Peeper.
Winkler says: “I told her the prop department would make one. She said it had to be real diamonds. I increased the budget by $10,000 to cover up this so-called deformed wrist I never once noticed. When the studio asked for the bracelet, it was nowhere to be found.”
Demi Moore also showed diva tendencies on 1996’s The Juror. Winkler says: “She did get upset when her private jet was smaller than she expected.”
Partway through filming 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Susannah York announced she wanted a stop date – so she could start acting on another film.
She wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Winkler says: “York announced she was not going to leave her dressing room until she got her stop date… After about half an hour of hysteria, she finally agreed she’d perform under the terms of her contract but she was too embarrassed to come out and face all the other people after she had kept them waiting.”
When an out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone turned up at Winkler’s office in 1975 and pitched the idea that would become Rocky, the film mogul thought it would be “a nice, small film about an interesting character and an unusual love story. Nothing more.”
Stallone agreed to write the script for free, on the condition he could star. It would become one of the biggest film franchises in history. But Winkler still had a tiny budget for that first film.
He says: “Rocky and Adrian’s first date was written to be played at an ice skating rink. We didn’t have the money for ice skates, let alone skaters…We came up with the solution: since the scene was set during Thanksgiving, why not have a rink empty, and Rocky gives a couple of dollars to the janitor to let them skate in the empty rink. It was magic.”
He got more imaginative when finding extras for the fight scene. Winkler writes: “We filled the rows with people from assisted-living facilities.
“We were able to keep the old folks attentive by auctioning off TVs every hour and by having plentiful snacks. We had to bus them back by late afternoon for their meds.”
Actors at war
Things got physical between Carl Weathers and Dolph Lundgren – that’s Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago to Rocky fans – while filming 1985’s fourth film.
Winkler says: “Dolph threw Carl across the ring. Carl was furious, walked out and said he wasn’t coming back. Dolph apologised and Carl came back but never really forgave his fellow actor.”
An eye for detail
Martin Scorsese ensures his movies are nothing short of perfect.
That was certainly the case for his 1980 classic Raging Bull, which tells the story of boxer Jake LaMotta.
Winkler says: “We had one scene left to mix. It was in the nightclub and the co-author of LaMotta’s book, Peter Savage, playing an anonymous customer, asks for a drink, a Cutty Sark.
After raising the background sounds Marty said he couldn’t hear the words ‘Cutty Sark’.
I replied that all of us were stone deaf at this point and would never be able to hear it clearly.
We were going to wrap.
Marty said, ‘In that case, Raging Bull is no longer a Marty Scorsese picture, and I want my name off’… That’s Marty’s commitment to his work.”
Real Wolf of Wall Street
The 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street had enough controversy, without a cameo from a pre-politics Donald Trump .
Winkler says: “While shooting outside Trump Towers on Fifth Avenue, we were greeted by the future president, who hinted that he wouldn’t mind a part but it couldn’t be a walk-on.”
Actor Lee Marvin wreaked havoc on the set on Point Blank in 1967, driving director John Boorman to distraction.
Winkler explains: “Marvin, who got very drunk when we arrived in San Francisco, disappeared with singer Ella Fitzgerald.
Boorman destroyed his own hotel room and we took the fragments of furniture out of the hotel in our suitcases in the middle of the night.
“Finally, a contrite Marvin showed up, no worse for his spree.”
A Life in Movies: Stories from 50 years in Hollywood, Irwin Winkler (Abrams Press, £18.99)