Winkler wondered how it felt to be blacklisted in '50s

March 17, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Little guy. Always running."

In four memorable words, Budd Schulburg fixed the eternal Hollywood hustler on the first page of his famous "What Makes Sammy Run?" But now we know where little Sammy ran: He ran to adulthood, and he became Irwin Winkler.

Irwin Winkler isn't little, but he's . . . wiry. And tan. And he's still running. In a hotel room interview you can sense him running. If the phone goes off, he's a blur, he's a flash, he's "Yeah, yeah, uh-huh, great, call me back, I got a guy here," and then he's back. Elapsed time: 4.6 seconds. That boom you just heard was Irwin Winkler Chuck-Yeagering it through the sound barrier.

Winkler, of course, famously has become one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, earning millions from his "Rocky" films with Sylvester Stallone, and earning respect with his more serious efforts, such as his collaborations with Martin Scorsese ("GoodFellas," to name the latest) and Bertrand Tavernier (" 'Round Midnight"). He has even had a few megaflops, like the poor, dead-as-a-carp "Right Stuff."

"It didn't play anywhere," he says, when that disaster is brought up. "In one city, they gave some kids a choice. They could go see 'The Right Stuff' for free or stay in school. Not one kid chose the movie. That's when I knew we were dead. It still hurts like hell."

And now, at 59, he has suddenly taken a turn, careerwise. Rather than produce, he has written and directed for the first time in "Guilty By Suspicion," a scorching indictment of the blacklist period in Hollywood, when a number of people -- some of them communists, some of them fellow travelers, some of them with only the vaguest left-wing connections -- were driven from their jobs and from their professions by a conspiracy of venal politicians, weak studio heads and panic in the streets.

"For me it started with the idea of loss," he says, and you can understand how loss would mean a lot to a guy like Irwin Winkler. "What happened if I lost everything? And the only thing required to keep it was that I name a few names. What would I do? What would you do? I was intrigued. The politics came later."

This cathartic experience took place a few years back in Paris, on the set of " 'Round Midnight," and it came up in conversation with John Berry, an actor who, in fact, had been blacklisted during the early '50s. Winkler himself is just a tad too young to have gone through it.

"I was a teen-ager at the time. I didn't know," he says.

Taken with the blacklist period, Winkler hired writer-director Abraham Polonsky to put a project together. Polonsky was more than knowledgeable; he, too, was a victim. He had a prosperous career going in the late '40s -- he'd written the great "Body and Soul" with John Garfield and written and directed "Force of Evil", also with Garfield -- when he was nailed and driven from the business. He didn't get a screen credit again until 1968, with "Madigan."

But, says Winkler, "we just had a big difference of opinion. Abe thought it should be about a communist and very political. I felt it was more interesting if it was about a non-communist. I didn't think you could get an audience to care about a communist."

Winkler pushed on ahead, writing and deciding to make his directorial debut.

"It was not easy," he says with a rueful smile. "I realized, first day on the set, that although I had produced 35 films . . . I knew nothing.

But he prevailed, propelled by the possibility that it could be a cautionary tale.

"We have senators calling reporters 'sympathizers' with the enemy. We have cities turning down actors for their parades because they don't support the war. Who can say it won't happen again?"

That's the bad news.

And now for the good:

"No more 'Rockys.' On that I give you my word."

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