Filmmaker and bon vivant Michael Winner dead at 77
British director and producer, Michael Winner is shown in a December 2010 file photo. His wife Geraldine announced Monday that Winner has died. He was 77. (AP Photo/Jonathan Short)
The Associated Press
Published Monday, January 21, 2013 10:56AM EST
Last Updated Monday, January 21, 2013 1:40PM EST
LONDON -- "Death Wish" director Michael Winner, a British filmmaker, restaurant critic and bon vivant, died Monday. He was 77.
Winner's wife, Geraldine, said he died at his London home after an illness.
Winner's 30 movies included three "Death Wish" films starring the late Charles Bronson. Many of his features sit at the schlockier end of the spectrum, but he also worked with Hollywood icons including Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Faye Dunaway.
One of his earliest films was the 1962 nudist feature "Some Like It Cool"; later, he specialized in thrillers and action movies, including "The Mechanic," "Scorpio" and the violent "Death Wish" series.
Winner never took criticism of his films too seriously.
"If you want art, don't mess about with movies," he once said. "Buy a Picasso."
Born in London in 1935, Winner was writing a showbiz column for a local newspaper by the time he was 14, and as a student edited the Cambridge University newspaper, Varsity.
After a stint as a film critic, he started his movie-making career on shorts and documentaries. One of his first films was a travelogue called "This is Belgium." Winner said that because Belgium proved too rainy, it was shot largely in East Grinstead, southern England.
His 1960s British films included "West 11," a gritty thriller set in a shabby London neighbourhood; "The System," a tale of young men on the prowl in a seaside town; and "I'll Never Forget What's'isname" starring Oliver Reed as a fed-up London adman and Orson Welles as his boss.
Other notable pictures included "The Big Sleep" -- a remake of the 1940s film noir -- and "Hannibal Brooks," a comedy caper featuring Reed as a prisoner of war who makes a bid for freedom with an elephant from a German zoo.
Winner was best known for "Death Wish," which stars Bronson as a law-abiding citizen who turns vigilante when his wife and daughter are attacked. The 1974 film was criticized for its violence, but was a commercial success in an America fretting about urban violence and a fraying social fabric.
Winner declared it "a pleasant romp" with no moralistic intent and went on to direct two more installments. He also was proud that "Death Wish" featured the film debuts of two future stars -- Jeff Goldblum and Denzel Washington, who played "Freak 1" and "Alley Mugger," respectively.
A lover of the high life who collected antiques and rare first editions, Winner had a second career as restaurant critic with the long-running "Winner's Dinners" column in the Sunday Times newspaper. His acerbic verdicts got him barred from some eateries, and his highest praise was to declare a meal "historic."
"He could be very witty but also uncompromising in his demands for good service, which resonated with readers," said Martin Ivens, acting editor of The Sunday Times.
"He was also not afraid to laugh at himself and rejoiced in the huge postbag of letters which poked gentle fun at him -- often he would forward particularly insulting letters that had been sent straight to him for inclusion alongside his column."
In later years he was famous for a series of insurance ads with the catchphrase "Calm down, dear!" Prime Minister David Cameron once used the phrase to a female lawmaker in the House of Commons, prompting howls of outrage.
He also founded and helped fund a campaign to erect a London memorial to police officers killed in the line of duty.
Winner had experienced health problems since getting a bacterial infection from bad oysters in 2007. He wrote his final column in December, but refused to say goodbye forever.
"Who knows, after Christmas I might make a comeback," he wrote. "How many times did Sinatra do it?"
His wife, a former dancer who met Winner in 1957 and married him two years ago, said he was "a wonderful man, brilliant, funny and generous. A light has gone out in my life."
Monty Python comedian John Cleese said Winner had been "the dearest, kindest, funniest and most generous of friends. I shall miss him terribly."
And TV mogul Simon Cowell said he, too, would miss a good friend.
"Laughter was never far away when Michael was around, and he is someone who the more I got to know, the fonder I got of him," Cowell said.