A Hollywood veteran who’s worked with some of the biggest names in showbiz has shared juicy behind-the-scenes stories.
He went from Coney Island’s boardwalk to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
That’s Irwin Winkler, the 87-year-old legend behind such classics as Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Rocky. Over his 50-year career as a writer, director and producer, Winkler has worked with Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Martin Scorsese, Liza Minnelli, Demi Moore, Elvis Presley and other icons.
And long before receiving the first of his 12 Academy Awards, his earliest training in filmmaking — as he writes in A Life in Movies: Stories from 50 years in Hollywood(Abrams Press) — came when he was a kid in the 1940s in Coney Island.
“I worked on the boardwalk on a bumper-car ride,” Winkler told The Post. “My job was to separate them when they got stuck, which I guess was a good lesson for Hollywood later on. Because half the personalities I dealt with kept bumping into each other!”
Winkler, now living in Los Angeles with his wife of 60 years, Margo, who has appeared in several Scorsese films, here reveals some of the behind-the-scenes secrets of several of the most beloved films of all time.
MAKING ROCKY ON THE CHEAP
Persuading United Artists to finance 1976’s Rocky was as tough as climbing the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The underdog boxing film didn’t exactly scream “hit!” This was a movie written by and starring an unknown actor (Stallone), that featured an unlikely love interest (Talia Shire as the shy, bespectacled Adrian), and whose hero loses in the end, even if he wins his self-respect.
But Winkler and co-producer Bob Chartoff were passionate about the script and scored a deal with United Artists by agreeing to a measly $1 million budget, guaranteeing they’d personally cover anything over that. So how do you make a movie on pocket change? Cut corners. “Our budget caused us to economise in every area,” Winkler writes.
There were no craft services, so the entire crew fuelled up on pizza, Philly cheesesteaks and spaghetti from local eateries. On screen, Rocky and Adrian’s first date, originally set to take place at a crowded ice-skating rink, was reworked for an empty rink on thanksgiving because the production couldn’t afford skates and outfits for hundreds of extras.
That obviously still wasn’t enough. And so, to fill those vacant seats, the crew bussed in patients from assisted-living facilities. To keep their elderly extras engaged, “We’d auction off a television set every hour to keep them cheery,” Winkler told The Post.
Still, he adds in the book, “The fight fans you see might be dozing at some very exciting moments.”
DEMI THE DIVA
For Demi Moore, less was not more while making 1996’s The Juror.
The actress, then 34, was huge in the ’90s, having starred in Ghost, Indecent Proposal and A Few Good Men, among other major films. And when she was cast as a Mafia trial juror in director Brian Gibson’s drama, she had a few demands.
“She told Gibson that she looked better and had to be shot on the left side,” Winkler writes. “And sets should be built accordingly.”
Going further, Moore went over the producer and director’s heads and called up the make-up team to inquire about cameraman Gordon Willis’ “specialties”.
Winkler appreciated Moore’s work ethic but didn’t like her lack of trust.
“She certainly worked on every moment of every scene and never complained about hours or time off,” he writes. “Though she did get upset at our travel agent when her private jet was smaller than she expected.”
TRUMP’S ‘WOLF’ CALL
Before Donald Trump became a fixture of cable news, the future president was all over movie screens. He made cameo appearances (as himself) in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Two Weeks Notice and Zoolander.
But there’s one film Trump wanted that he never got: a part in Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street.
“A big part!” Winkler told The Post. “Not a walk-on.”
That lofty suggestion, the producer said, was made by Trump in person while the crew was filming at night in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. In the end, Trump didn’t appear in the film, which was already written and deep into production.
CREED’S TWO ENDINGS
It seemed as if the Rocky series was nearly finished when Creed — a spin-off focusing on the late Apollo’s son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), was released in 2015. That film turned out to be both a critical and box-office success, spawning a sequel in 2018. But it came perilously close to being a different movie.
“The script that the studio gave us the green light for had Creed win the big fight at the end,” Winkler said. “As we were in production, (director) Ryan Coogler said, ‘I think it would be more honest if he didn’t win’.” He wanted to follow suit with the original Rocky in which the hero comes up short.
MGM hated the idea, so the filmmakers shot both endings.
After they’d edited Creed A and B, Winkler and co. went off to a multiplex in North Las Vegas to test both versions. They screened the movies at the same time in theatres with identical seating configurations. The approval numbers, as it turned out, were almost the same. So MGM reluctantly agreed to let them use the darker ending the filmmakers preferred — and Stallone scored his first Oscar nomination since originating the role back in 1976.
“By the way,” Winkler told The Post, “some of them at the studio still claim we could’ve done a lot more business if we used the ending where he won.”
JAKE LAMOTTA WAS NEARLY KNOCKED OUT
Raging Bull, another Winkler boxing classic, was nominated for eight Oscars in 1981, with De Niro winning Best Actor. Still, when executives from United Artists were first presented with the script, they loathed it. One said De Niro’s flawed fighter, Jake LaMotta, was “no better than a cockroach”, Winkler writes.
But he, co-producer Chartoff and De Niro strongly believed in the real-life story of LaMotta, so they made a hardball offer. The studio, thrilled by the success of Rocky, wanted a sequel more than anything, so Winkler went above the two execs straight to their boss, UA CEO Andy Albeck.
“We said, ‘Look, we’re not gonna make any more Rockys — we had the right to say no — unless you guys say yes to Raging Bull. And they agreed to do it,” Winkler told The Post.
“It was not a bluff.”
One of Winkler’s earliest movies was 1967’s Double Trouble, starring a 32-year-old Elvis Presley as a musician (natch!) who becomes involved with a British heiress.
The singer charmed Winkler on set. “He was polite, very nice to be with, good company, interested in things,” the producer said. But Winkler also discovered in Elvis the darker side of fame. For one thing, although the singer aspired to deeper acting roles, his iron-fisted manager, Colonel Tom Parker, refused to allow it.
Winkler said Presley told him how much he admired Point Blank, the revenge thriller the producer made that same year.
“I wish I could make movies like that,” Presley said. “I can’t do that because the Colonel won’t let me.”
Presley’s career was also winding down by then, Winkler noted, but the singer hadn’t accepted that fact. Every day when he’d leave the MGM lot in a car with his friends Red and Sonny, they’d throw a blanket over the singer to hide him from view from adoring fans.
But in reality, Winkler told The Post, no one was waiting to see him.
“Did he know the crowds weren’t there anymore?” Winkler wondered about the singer, “or did he simply not want to know?”
This story originally appeared on the NY Post and was reproduced with permission