HBO pic brings back sad fall of Winchell

GOOD MORNING: I was embarrassed after viewing HBO’s “Winchell.” Not because of the movie — but because it reminded me of Walter Winchell’s later days, when I knew him here in Hollywood (those days are not shown in the pic). I had been one of those kids in N.Y. who listened to his radio shows every Sunday, and when I was working on Broadway, I’d grab the “bulldog” edition of the Mirror to read his column. Those exciting days are shown effectively in the Paul Mazursky-Rob Fried production starring a sensaysh Stanley Tucci. But, when I saw Winchell here in the late ’50s, it was embarrassing. There was Winchell, the guy who invented the “gossip” column and three-dot journalism, now “planting” items on himself — to get a mention in my three-dot column … Winchell lived/worked at the Ambassador hotel during his sometimes lengthy stays in L.A. Fred Hayman was the general manager. Winchell was a regular at the hotel’s Cocoanut Grove and had his regular table, as he had in his halcyon days at the Stork in N.Y. He was a fan of acts playing there like Eddie Fisher and Judy Garland. Warren Cowan was their publicist. One night, producer Jerry Wald told Cowan about his own beginnings as a N.Y. columnist, when he asked Winchell how to make a name for himself. Winchell told him, “Find someone important — and attack him!” Next day, Wald attacked Winchell! … Lee Solters, who was at the Tuesday “Winchell” screening at the DGA, had also started as a press agent in N.Y., planting items with Winchell. And while he continued feeding stories to him throughout Winchell’s always-stormy career, Solters admits he never introduced himself in person to the newsman. “I never wanted to get in his web. I kept away from him.” He remembers Winchell’s famous handwritten notes on the top of wrongo items returned to the sender: “DDT” which meant “Drop Dead Twice.” Solters was publicizing the 1957 film “The Sweet Smell of Success,” which, of course, was the story of Winchell. At the preview, Winchell remained across the street and waited for the press agents to come out — and tell him how awful they thought the movie was. (It was, of course, terrific) … N.Y. publicist Mike Hall, who was at that preview, said “Winchell astounded us when he said (of the movie), ‘Wasn’t it terrible what they did to Ed Sullivan?’ ” Noted Hall, who had been one of Winchell’s hefty contributors, boasting items into the column 5-6 days a week: “He was a good payback” — with client items, that is. “He’d improve on items sent by new press agents. He was a good guy for all of us.” He loved B’way — the street itself as well as the performers. It was Hall who organized a well-attended memorial for Winchell in N.Y. following the funeral, at which there were no attendees … On one of his last days in N.Y., Winchell ran into Merv Griffin on Seventh Avenue at 57th St. He told Merv, “Well, they got me — and they’ll get you, too!” “I was doing my TV show at the time,” said Griffin, “and I think he was referring to the network. But what he said scared me — and I never forgot it.”

YOU’RE DEAD and get yourself buried.” That’s what columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), in “The Sweet Smell of Success,” told press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who had given him a wrongo. Producer David Brown had those same words for the “source” who decreed Brown’s B’way-bound musical of ‘Sweet Smell of Success” “is dead” in Daily Variety’s story Wednesday on Livent’s tsouris. Brown had just come from a workshop rehearsal of the show based on Ernest Lehman’s story-screenplay, written for stage by John Guare with music by Marvin Hamlisch and directed by Nicholas Hytner. Jonathan Pryce and Brian d’Arcy James are to star in the show (hopefully?) headed for a Spring 2000 B’way bow. Brown promises “full speed ahead.” Brown also testifies to Winchell’s acuteness. “I read about my forthcoming divorce (from first wife Liberty McGacy) in Winchell’s column” … Lehman was a N.Y. press agent planting to Winchell when his novella “Sweet Smell of Success” was printed in Cosmopolitan but re-titled “Tell Me About Tomorrow” (because a senior editor didn’t like the word “Smell,” sez then editor David Brown!) “Winchell never talked to me afterwards,” says Lehman. And when Lehman made his Hollywood success, he noted of Winchell in the later years, “He was a pathetic figure, taking out his bank book to show people he had money!” … In those days in Hollywood, Winchell would dine regularly at the Bistro with Sidney Korshak and Walter Kane … Sharon Stone attended the “Winchell” screening at the DGA, noting she is a fan of director Paul Mazursky and that period. She’s thinking about doing a movie about Mae West … Mazursky has written a “fabulous” sequel to “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” titled “Broke”; it is, of course, for a return by Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler. He’s also readying daughter Jill’s script, “Persona Non Grata” … Elizabeth Taylor hosted a moving memorial for Roddy McDowall at her home Sunday. Among those on hand, the Lew Wassermans, Gregory Pecks, George Axelrods, Gordon Davidsons, Suzanne Pleshette and Tommy Gallagher, and Sybil Burton. Tears, sure — but many laughs too about the fun times.

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