By his own admission, Irwin Winkler was a lousy agent. So, in 1967, he became a filmmaker and produced his first movie: Elvis Presley’s “Double-Trouble.” Since then, Winkler has gone on to produce, write and/or direct more than 50 films—including “Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” “The Right Stuff,” “Goodfellas,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Irishman.”
Collectively, Winkler’s movies have earned 65 Academy Award nominations and 12 wins. He’s now set to receive yet another honor, Malibu Film Society’s Malibu Filmmaker Award, at a special event on Saturday, Feb. 22.
The very first MFS Malibu Filmmaker Award was presented by producer/director James Cameron posthumously to Stan Winston in 2009—his longtime collaborator on films like “Terminator” and “Jurassic Park.” Since then, award recipients have included filmmaker Rob Reiner, studio head Arnon Milchan and Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel (whose documentary film forced the International Olympic Committee to crack down on illegal doping).
The start of Winkler’s career is a Hollywood cliché: he started off in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency after getting his degree in literature. But clichés become that for a reason—Winkler eventually worked his way up to becoming a full-fledged agent, representing comedians and rock stars.
Looking to move into movies, Winkler then formed his own talent agency with fellow agent Robert Chartoff, representing stars like Julie Christie and eventually getting into film production.
One of their early successes was “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” which was nominated for nine Academy Awards.
When Winkler first pitched “Rocky” to the studios, they told him, “nobody wants to shoot in Philadelphia, nobody watches fights and no movie hero falls in love with an ugly girl,” he recalled. The movie has grossed almost a billion dollars and won his first Oscar for best picture.
In a recent interview for a Hollywood Unscripted podcast, Winkler said he used “Rocky money” to help buy his Malibu home.
“Rocky” (1976) launched one of the most successful movie franchises in Hollywood history, and was followed by “Rocky II” (1979), “III” (1982), “IV” (1985) and “V” (1990), then “Rocky Balboa” (2006), “Creed” (2015) and “Creed II” (2018).
Winkler said he learned a lot over the years: How to negotiate with movie studios to get backing for the films he really wanted to make, when to use a heavy hand with a particular director and how to keep going after hearing the word “No.”
One of the biggest disappointments in his career was that “The Right Stuff” (about the first U.S. astronauts) did not do well at the box office. Despite that, the film won four Oscars and was nominated for another four Academy Awards.
For “The Irishman,” Winkler put together a team of people he’s known and worked with for decades including Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. It’s the first film he’s ever made with a streaming service as opposed to a traditional studio.
“Streaming services are changing the way films are made,” Winkler said. “We have to adjust to a new environment; but I think there’s room for both—streaming and watching movies in theaters. If you give people an entertaining evening in the theater, they’ll come back.”
Winkler commented that “The Irishman” was expensive to make, with two things in particular driving up the costs: the digital “de-aging process” to make older actors look like they were in their 20s, and finding or replicating all of the period locations.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received the 2017 Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Achievement Award. Last year, he published his autobiography, “A Life in Movies: Stories from 50 years in Hollywood.” Together with Margo (his wife of over 60 years and an actress who played minor roles in seven of his films), Winkler has three sons, two of whom are part of his production company.
Since splitting with Chartoff in 1985, Winkler expanded beyond production into writing and directing—and one of the films he directed will be shown at the Filmmaker Award event: “De-Lovely: The Cole Porter Story” stars Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd and Jonathan Pryce and features musical performances by Natalie Cole, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Robbie Williams, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette.
The event will be held on Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Malibu Screening Room @ MJCS (24855 PCH). Doors open at 6 p.m. for a catered cocktail reception, followed by a 7 p.m. award presentation and movie screening. Advance reservations are required and can be made at MalibuFilmSociety.org.